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Milner v. Mares

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 3, 2017

MARK MILNER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
VINCENT MARES, Executive Director, New Mexico Racing Commission; DAVID KEITER, Steward, New Mexico Racing Commission, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         This matter comes before the Court upon Defendants' Motion to Dismiss brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) and filed on March 2, 2017. (Doc. 6). Plaintiffs[1] filed their Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss on April 30, 2017. (Doc. 15). Defendants filed their Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss on May 15, 2017. (Doc. 16). The Court held a hearing on the Motion to Dismiss on October 12, 2017, in which Dori E. Richards and A. Blair Dunn represented Plaintiffs, and Randi N. Valverde represented Defendants.

         Having considered the parties' arguments and applicable law, the Court grants Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Specifically, the Court determines that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause claims because Plaintiffs have failed to plead a clearly established constitutional right. Additionally, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiffs have failed to plead facts sufficient to raise a plausible claim of relief under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause or Equal Protection Clause. Accordingly, the Court dismisses Plaintiffs' Complaint without prejudice.

         I. Background

         In their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege three constitutional violations against Defendants David Keiter and Vincent Mares under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection violations. Complaint at ¶¶ 55-97. Plaintiffs support their claims with allegations of Defendants' conduct during the May 22-24, 2014, horse racing competition at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track, and with allegations regarding the post-scratch administrative appeal before the New Mexico Racing Commission (NMRC).

         A. The May 22-24, 2014, Horse Racing Competition

         Plaintiffs are horse owners who were and are licensed by the NMRC to engage in horse racing in New Mexico. Id. at ¶ 9. Plaintiffs state that their horses were “scratched, ” or disqualified, during the third day of competition on May 24, 2014. Id. at ¶¶ 8, 10, 13, and 24. Defendant Keiter, the presiding Steward, scratched the horses for failure to comply with Rule 15.2.5.12(B) NMAC. Id. at ¶ 14 and 16. Rule 15.2.5.12(B) states,

A horse shall be ineligible to start in a race when: its breed registration certificate is not on file with the racing secretary or horse identifier; unless the racing secretary has submitted the certificate to the appropriate breed registry for correction; the stewards may waive this requirement if the information contained on the registration certificate is otherwise available; and the horse is otherwise correctly identified to the stewards' satisfaction.

         Defendant Keiter scratched the horses because Plaintiffs did not have the original breed certificates on file with the racing secretary at the competition in Ruidoso. Id. at ¶¶ 16 and 20. Defendant Keiter allegedly acted under the authority and direction of Defendant Mares, Executive Director of the NMRC. Id. at ¶ 15. Plaintiffs had copies of the breed certificates on file with the racing secretary at the competition in Ruidoso. Id. at ¶ 19. During the weekend of May 22-24, 2014, Plaintiffs had the original breed certificates on file in Farmington, New Mexico. Id. at ¶ 20.

         Defendant Keiter's interpretation of Rule 15.2.5.12(B) had not been enforced in recent history. Id. at ¶ 22. According to Plaintiffs, Defendant Keiter and the NMRC were targeting horses trained by Mr. John Stinebaugh. Id. at ¶ 31. Plaintiffs allege that at least one horse, not owned by any Plaintiffs or trained by Mr. Stinebaugh and that did not have an original breed certificate on file at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track, was allowed to race during the competition at issue. Id. at ¶ 36. And no announcements or notices were given to owners that they needed to have the original breed certificates in Ruidoso. Id. at ¶¶ 34-35. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that employees of the NMRC advised only some of the horse owners and trainers of the requirement to have an original certificate on file at Ruidoso during the race competition. Id. at ¶ 40.

         B. Plaintiffs' Administrative Appeal

         On June 2, 2014, Plaintiffs filed an appeal of the scratches with the NMRC. Id. at ¶ 42. The NMRC appointed a hearing officer to hear the case and after a hearing on November 20, 2014, the hearing officer determined that Defendants' conduct “show[ed] a lack of impartiality and is inconsistent with the statutory directive of the Horse Racing Act.” Id. at ¶¶ 42-45. The NMRC did not implement the recommendations of the hearing officer, did not take any actions against Defendants, and did not compensate Plaintiffs. Id. at ¶ 46. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, March 12, 2015, and July 22, 2015, the NMRC did not adopt the hearing officer's recommendations. Id. at ¶¶ 47-48. Plaintiffs allege that the July 22, 2015, NMRC meeting took place in closed session in violation of NMAC 15.2.1.19(C)(15)(d). Id. at ¶¶ 49-50. For more than 16 months, the NMRC failed to reach a decision regarding Plaintiffs' appeal. Id. at ¶ 52. Plaintiffs finally withdrew their administrative appeal without final action by the NMRC. Id. at ¶ 54.

         II. Standard of Review

         In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must accept all well-pleaded allegations as true and must view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. See Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 118 (1990); Swanson v. Bixler, 750 F.2d 810, 813 (10th Cir. 1984). Rule 12(b)(6) requires that a complaint set forth the grounds of a plaintiff's entitlement to relief through more than labels, conclusions and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must allege facts sufficient to state a plausible claim of relief. Id. at 570. A claim is facially plausible if the plaintiff pleads facts sufficient for the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         To avoid a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal based on the defense of qualified immunity, plaintiff “must allege facts sufficient to show (assuming they are true) that the defendants plausibly violated their constitutional rights, and that those rights were clearly established at the time.” Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1249 (10th Cir. 2008). A court “may decide ‘which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the ...


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