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Ban From the Track May Be a Civil Rights Violation

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A horse owner and a trainer can sue Pennsylvania racing commissioners for ejecting them from a track after complaints accused the pair of endangering other jockeys by racing horses that "were somehow fundamentally unsound," a federal judge ruled.

Trainer Anthony Adamo and owner Michael Gill sued six past and present Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission officials for civil rights violations following their ejection from the Penn National Race Course in early 2010. While the order against Adamo was later rescinded, Gill remains barred from the Grantville, Pa., racetrack.

Jockeys and trainers illegally threatened a boycott of a scheduled race if Gill's horses weren't removed from competition, according to the original complaint.

The defendant racing officials argued that Adamo and Gill do not have a due-process claim because a Pennsylvania law explicitly states horse racing licenses do not vest their holders with property rights.

Declining to adopt the commission members' claim that racing licenses are a privilege, not a right, U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo noted that the Supreme Court rejected such distinctions as they apply to procedural due process rights.

"Defendants' argument that the language of the statute expressly precludes a procedural due process claim is somewhat perplexing in light of the hearing rights guaranteed to a licensee facing ejection," Rambo wrote on Thursday.

The 5th Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court have each found due process violations in cases where trainers complained that their licenses were unfairly suspended or revoked without a proper showing of cause, the judge found.

"The state law has engendered a clear expectation of continued enjoyment of the licenses absent proof of culpable conduct by plaintiffs," Rambo wrote. "This is enough to create a property interest in plaintiffs' licenses, notwithstanding the statutory language to the contrary."

Noting a lack of controlling case law, Rambo ruled that the complaint could survive a motion to dismiss because ejection from the track could affect Adamo and Gill's livelihoods.

"Although nothing in the record indicates that plaintiffs are barred from racing at other racetracks, it seems intuitive that the ejection will likely affect Plaintiffs' livelihood to some extent," Rambo wrote. "In any event, defendants' attempt to minimize the affect that the ejection has had (or will have) on plaintiffs' livelihood does not warrant dismissal of plaintiffs' due process claims." (Parentheses in original.)

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