Gotovac v. Trejo

Decision Date02 September 2020
Docket NumberNo. CIV 19-0783 JB/LF,CIV 19-0783 JB/LF
Citation495 F.Supp.3d 1186
Parties Debra GOTOVAC and Brad Bolen, Plaintiffs, v. Izzy TREJO, Executive Director, New Mexico Racing Commission, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Mexico

A. Blair Dunn, Western Agriculture, Resource and Business Advocates, LLP, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Attorneys for the Plaintiffs.

Paula Grace Maynes, Michael Bebeau, Miller Stratvert, P.A., Albuquerque, New Mexico, Attorney for the Defendants.



THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, filed October 25, 2019 (Doc. 12)("Motion"). The Court held a hearing on December 3, 2019. The primary issues are: (i) whether Plaintiffs Debra Gotovac and Brad Bolen's allegation in the Complaint for Damages for Constitutional Violations, filed August 27, 2019 (Doc. 1)("Complaint"), that Defendant Izzy Trejo, Executive Director of the New Mexico Racing Commission ("NMRC"), allowed the transfer of horses in violation of the NMRC's Code of Conduct, states a claim under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America; (ii) whether Trejo's actions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (iii) whether Trejo is entitled to qualified immunity from the Plaintiffs’ claims. The Court concludes that: (i) Trejo did not violate Gotovac and Bolen's procedural or substantive Due Process rights, because Gotovac and Bolen do not have property or liberty interests in the qualifying race's outcome; (ii) Trejo did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because Gotovac and Bolen have not alleged that they were treated differently than similarly situated owners; and (iii) qualified immunity protects Trejo, because Gotovac and Bolen have not alleged that Trejo violated a clearly established constitutional right. The Court, accordingly, grants the Motion to Dismiss.1


On August 9, 2019, the NMRC suspended trainer Sterlen Trey Woods pending the result of a hearing scheduled August 18, 2019. See Initial Ruling of the New Mexico Racing Commission at 1 (dated Aug. 9, 2019), filed August. 9, 2019 (Doc. 1-2)("Initial Ruling"). The hearing concerned the confirmed positive test of albuterol,3 in a sample taken from his first-place finisher horse in a qualifying race held July 27, 2019 at the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack in Ruidoso, New Mexico. See Complaint ¶ 9 at 2. Under normal circumstances, horses trained by a New Mexico trainer under suspicion of illegal drugging are not eligible for transfer, pursuant to New Mexico Administrative Code ("NMAC") §§ and See Complaint ¶ 10, at 2. Because of a two-day delay in receiving the positive test results at the NMRC offices and notifying Woods, however, Trejo allowed Woods’ other horses to be transferred to other trainers. See Letter from Ismael Trejo to the Racing Community at 1 (dated Aug. 13, 2019) filed August 27, 2019 (Doc 1-3)("Trejo Letter") Complaint ¶ 12 at 2. Trejo asserted that this decision was in the "spirit of fairness," as the confirmed positive test had arrived at NMRC's offices on August 7, 2019, but Woods was not notified until August 9, 2019. See Trejo Letter at 1; Complaint ¶ 12 at 2. The horses that were transferred were allowed to run in the August 16-17, 2019, trials for the All American Futurity race at Ruidoso Downs.6 See Complaint ¶ 14 at 3. Two of Woods’ previously scratched horses placed within the top five, while Gotovac and Bolen's horse fell out of the top five. See Complaint ¶ 15, at 3. Gotovac and Bolen allege Trejo's decision was "influenced by the political connections of several of the horse owners." See Complaint ¶ 16, at 3.


In the complaint, Gotovac and Bolen allege three causes of action. See Complaint ¶ 1, at 1. They allege violations of the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and of the Fourteenth Amendment under § 1983. See Complaint ¶ 1, at 1. In his Motion, Trejo asks the Court to "enter an order dismissing this case with prejudice," See Motion at 4, because Gotovac and Bolen do not state claims for relief, and because qualified immunity protects Trejo's actions.

1. The Complaint .

Gotovac and Bolen filed the Complaint in federal court on August 27, 2019. See Complaint at 1. They allege that Trejo allowed an unlawful transfer of Woods’ horses. See Complaint ¶ 11, at 2. This transfer, they argue, allowed two of the horses that had previously belonged to Woods to place in the trials for the All American Futurity race at Ruidoso Downs, causing Gotovac and Bolen's horse to be kicked out of the top five and therefore not qualify for the All American Futurity race. See Complaint ¶ 14-15, at 3. Gotovac and Bolen argue that these actions violate their right to due process and equal protection pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and that Trejo's actions violate the Horse Racing Act, N.M. Stat. Ann. § 60-1A-1 through -30, and its implementing regulations at NMAC §§ 15.2.1 through 15.2.7. See Complaint ¶¶ 1-2, at 1.

Gotovac and Bolen assert three claims. See Complaint ¶¶ 18-59, at 1. First, they allege a violation of the Due Process Clause pursuant to § 1983. See Complaint ¶ 19, at 1. Their second claim is for violation of the Equal Protection Clause pursuant to § 1983. See Complaint ¶¶ 46-50, at 7. They assert the third claim is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to § 1983. See Complaint ¶¶ 51-59, at 7. As relief, Gotovac and Bolen ask the Court to: (i) conclude that Trejo has violated their constitutional right to due process; (ii) conclude that the Trejo's actions described in the Complaint establishes a pattern and practice that Racing Commission employees violate the Racing Commission's governing laws, regulations, policies and practices; (iii) conclude that Trejo violated Gotovac and Bolen's right to equal protection under the law; (iv) award attorney's fees and costs; (v) award general compensatory damages; (vi) award punitive damages; (vii) award interest on damages; and (viii) award any and all other relief that may be appropriate as deemed by the Court. See Complaint ¶¶ A-H, at 9.

2. The Motion.

Trejo asks the Court to dismiss all counts set forth in the Complaint under rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Motion ¶ 1, at 1. Trejo also asserts that qualified immunity protects his actions. See Motion ¶ 23, at 8. He argues that Gotovac and Bolen have not stated a claim for which relief can be granted under rule 12(b)(6). See Motion ¶ 8, at 3.

Trejo asserts that the Court must dismiss the due process claim as Gotovac and Bolen have "not explained what concrete life, liberty, or property interest Defendant allegedly infringed." Motion ¶ 14, at 5. Trejo asserts that the Complaint's allegations that Gotovac and Bolen's horse would have placed in the top five had the NMRC not allowed horses formerly trained by Woods to race is flawed, as, according to Trejo, Gotovac and Bolen have no "rational basis to predict the outcome of any particular hypothetical horse race with certainty based on the standings from a race that actually occurred." See Motion ¶ 15, at 5. Trejo argues that Gotovac and Bolen's assumptions that their horse would have qualified if not for the horses that Woods formerly trained does not create a tangible life, liberty, or property interest, and therefore there is no valid due process violation. See Motion ¶ 15, at 6.

Trejo then contends that the equal protection claim fails for similar reasons. He argues that his administrative decision, which NMAC § fully authorizes, conforms to the rules’ stated intent. See Motion ¶¶ 18-20, at 7. Trejo asserts that Gotovac and Bolen do not explain how Trejo's implementation of the rules specifically targeted them, and thus Gotovac and Bolen were not deprived of equal protection under the law. See Motion ¶ 22, at 8.

Finally, Trejo argues that, in addition to Gotovac and Bolen's constitutional claims being legally deficient, qualified immunity bars their claims. See Motion ¶ 23, at 8. Trejo asserts that "if qualified immunity is to mean anything, it must mean that public employees who are just doing their jobs are generally immune from suit." See Motion ¶ 24, at 8 (quoting Lewis v. Tripp, 604 F.3d 1221, 1230 (10th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Trejo asserts that the Gotovac and Bolen " ‘must demonstrate: (i) that the Defendant's actions violated his or her constitutional or statutory rights, and (ii) that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct.’ " Motion ¶ 25, at 8 (quoting Gerhardt v. Mares, 179 F. Supp. 3d 1006, 1003 (D.N.M. 2016) (Browning, J.)). Trejo asserts again that the Gotovac and Bolen cannot point to any precedent establishing any right that was violated and that "Defendant's actions in following the NMAC do not constitute a violation of Plaintiffs’ clearly established rights." See Motion ¶ 26, at 9. Accordingly, Trejo argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity. See Motion ¶ 27, at 9.

3. The Response.

Gotovac and Bolen respond. See Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, filed November 7, 2019 (Doc. 13)("Response"). First, they assert that the Court should not grant the Motion, as they argue Trejo deprived them of the full opportunity to engage in their chosen profession of horse racing by their horse not qualifying for the All-American Futurity race, which Plaintiffs assert is a property interest. See Response at 1. They also assert that he did not follow the stated rules regarding the transfer of horses from disqualified trainers and therefore violated their due process rights. See Response at 1.

Gotovac and Bolen argue that " ‘the nature of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the allegations within the four corners of the complaint after taking those allegations as true.’ " Respons...

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