Was the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission “out to lunch” during a hearing last year when they considered whether to quash or modify subpoenas issued to a number of licensed owners and trainers?
That's one of the suggestions in a lawsuit filed in federal court against Thomas Chuckas, Thoroughbred bureau director of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, by four owners and trainers who were suspended in November over their failure to provide documents sought by the commission in a subpoena exploring possible hidden ownership and program training. The investigation was spurred by anonymous complaints to the commission.
Owner-trainers Marcos Zulueta, Juan Carlos Guerrero and Silvio Martin and owner Sean Mitchell filed the suit Feb. 13 in United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Their single-count complaint alleges they were deprived of rights under the U.S. Constitution (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983) by Chuckas to utilize their state license to own and/or train Thoroughbreds. The complaint alleges Chuckas acted “with malice” in his handling of the matter.
The subpoenas – seeking extensive information over a three-year period related to training bills, horses, employees, taxes, banking records and telephone records – were issued to the plaintiffs and others in October 2017. When the plaintiffs did not comply within 20 days, their licenses were suspended.
“When a trainer is suspended it appears to the public that the trainer is guilty of some kind of offense thus damaging the trainer's reputation,” the complaint alleges. “This applies to horse owners, also.”
Appeals to the racing commission for a stay were denied and the suspended licensees then went to Commonwealth Court, where they did receive a stay. During that period when their licenses were suspended and they were unable to enter and run horses, the suit alleges, losses to the plaintiffs were “well in excess of $100,000.”
In the meantime, the plaintiffs in the case also appealed to the racing commission to quash or modify the subpoenas. On Nov. 29, 2017, a hearing took place before the regularly scheduled commission meeting, according to the complaint.
“The commission showed how seriously they took the hearing by breaking out sandwiches and eating them during the hearing,” the complaint says. “None were offered to the stunned plaintiffs.”
The commission denied the motion, the complaint alleges, “despite compelling evidence that the subpoenas were unreasonable.”
One of the plaintiffs, Silvio Martin, is a police officer and has phone numbers of his confidential informants on his personal phone records,” the complaint added. “It is surely unreasonable to not allow him to redact those numbers. This and other issues showing how unreasonable the subpoenas had been were never mentioned in the commission's adjudication.”
In January, Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt issued a stay of the suspensions and said the commission overstepped its bounds by suspending the licenses without accusing them of specific wrongdoing. She questioned whether licensees are even required to keep some of the records sought in the subpoenas.
The racing commission subsequently issued rulings rescinding the suspensions and restoring the licensees to good standing.
“All plaintiffs had suffered extreme financial damage, loss of reputation and loss of clientele as a result of Chuckas' illegal suspension,” the suit alleges.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages “for hurting plaintiffs' business,” punitive damages and attorney's fees.
Chuckas has not filed a response to the suit, which was filed by attorney Alan Pincus.
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