A Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of trainer Jeff Mullins in his case against the California Horse Racing Board, setting aside a 70-day suspension of his license he had been ordered to serve last year.
In a 12-page ruling issued Feb. 14, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Lisa Foster found that Mullins' "rights to procedural due process were violated by the Board."
The judge, who heard arguments in the case Dec. 2, found that no damages were available to the Southern California-based trainer due to a government code expressly providing immunity to public entities in such matters. But she left the door open for Mullins to file a motion to recover attorney fees from the CHRB.
Mullins, the court found, was entitled to a full hearing before the CHRB when the agency decided last April to overrule a hearing officer's decision on the trainer's probation stemming from an earlier case. Mullins filed his case seeking to overturn the CHRB's decision the following month.
"In layman's terms, the judge ruled he didn't get a fair trial," said Mullins' attorney Jim Maniscalco.
Mullins contended the entire matter was the result of a vendetta against him by the previous executive director of the CHRB, Ingrid Fermin, and other agency officials. He said he has served a total of 50 days in suspensions as a result of board decisions.
"I’ve waited for this day for years and am extremely grateful to the California Superior Court for allowing me a fair hearing, and respecting my constitutional rights, something that I was never afforded with the CHRB," said Mullins in a statement released by his spokesman, Kelly Wietsma. "Although this five-year battle has taken a major toll on me personally and professionally, I am happy to finally be able to put it behind me and focus on what I love doing and that is training horses."
CHRB general counsel Robert Miller did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the decision. Executive director Kirk Breed declined comment and said he did not know if the board would appeal Foster's ruling. CHRB spokesman Mike Marten said the board has not had adequate time to review the decision.
The case dates back to 2006 when Mullins was found liable for a Class II mepivacaine positive involving the horse Robs Coin, in which the trainer was hit with a 90-day suspension. Under an agreement with the board early in 2008, Mullins was to serve 20 days with 70 days stayed pending compliance with a one-year probationary period. Mullins later disputed the terms of that agreement in court.
While that matter was pending, the CHRB filed a second complaint against Mullins alleging that a horse in his care, Pathbreaking, had raced with an elevated level of total carbon dioxide in his system. A hearing officer ruled in September 2009 that Mullins was responsible and recommended a $2,500 fine and a 30-day suspension. He proposed that Mullins serve the days concurrently with his suspension in the Robs Coin matter.
The CHRB accepted the hearing officer's recommendation with the "minor" change dropping the concurrent portion. Mullins filed a petition challenging the CHRB decision, but served the 30 days for the TCO2 violation after his request for a stay was denied.
In October 2009, the board initiated a proceeding before the same hearing officer, Steffan Imhoff, to revoke Mullins' probation in the Robs Coin case. Imhoff, at the conclusion of a four-day hearing, recommended a 60-day suspension rather than the maximum 90 days (minus the 20 days already served), finding mitigating evidence did exist. His finding went to the board, which rejected it and imposed the full penalty.
The decision followed a meeting in executive session April 28 in which neither Mullins nor his attorney was allowed to participate. Judge Foster found fault with that and said the board increased the hearing officer's recommended sentence without cause.
"The board made only one modification of the proposed decision: it increased the penalty from a 60-day suspension to a 90-day suspension," she wrote. "The CHRB did so without making any changes to any of the hearing officer's findings. The board did not explain in its decision why it disagreed with HO Imhoff."
She said the decision should have "required a lesser suspension in a case where mitigating factors so heavily outweighed aggravating factors. Indeed, there is no indication of how or why the Board reached the decision that it made."
The judge also found that the CHRB had acted improperly when it decided Mullins could not serve his Robs Coin suspension at the same time he was serving his penalty for the TCO2 violation.
Maniscalco said, "The court’s decision is a tremendous victory for Jeff Mullins and for all involved in California’s horse racing industry."