Jones v. Schneiderman

Decision Date30 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. 11 Civ. 8215(KMW)(GWG).,11 Civ. 8215(KMW)(GWG).
Citation974 F.Supp.2d 322
PartiesJon JONES, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Eric T. SCHNEIDERMAN, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York


Barry Evan Friedman, New York University School of Law, Jamie A. Levitt, Jonathan Carl Rothberg, Leah Andrea Ramos, Morrison & Foerster LLP, New York, NY, for Plaintiffs.

John Michael Schwartz, State of New York Office of the Attorney General, Jamie A. Levitt, Jonathan Carl Rothberg, Leah Andrea Ramos, Morrison & Foerster LLP, New York, NY, for Defendants.

Opinion & Order

KIMBA M. WOOD, District Judge.

Plaintiffs in this case, the leading promoter of professional mixed martial arts (“MMA”) and a group of professional and amateur MMA athletes, trainers, and fans (collectively, Plaintiffs), challenge the constitutionality of a 1997 New York state law prohibiting the live performance of professional MMA in New York (the “Combative Sport Ban” or the “Ban”). Defendants in this action are the New York State Attorney General (“NYAG”) and the New York County District Attorney (collectively, Defendants).

The Court previously granted Defendants' motion to dismiss certain counts asserted in Plaintiffs' original complaint. See Jones v. Schneiderman, 888 F.Supp.2d 421 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (Wood, J.). Since then, Plaintiffs have filed a First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). [Dkt. No. 34]. In the FAC, Plaintiffs argue that the Ban is invalid because the law: (1) violates Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights of expression; (2) is overbroad on its face, in violation of the First Amendment; (3) is unconstitutionally vague, in violation of the Due Process Clause; (4) violates the Equal Protection Clause; (5) lacks a rational basis, in violation of the Due Process Clause; and (6) violates the Commerce Clause. Plaintiffs also contend that a separate 2001 liquor law violates their First Amendment rights of expression. Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the FAC. [Dkt. No. 36].

For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. In particular, the Court dismisses each of Plaintiffs' causes of action except for Plaintiffs' as-applied vagueness challenge.


Plaintiffs represent all aspects of amateur and professional MMA. Plaintiff Zuffa, LLC does business as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”), “the leading promoter of live Professional Unified Rules MMA contests and exhibitions throughout the world.” (FAC ¶ 278).

A number of professional MMA fighters are named as Plaintiffs, including: Jon “Bones” Jones, the current UFC Light Heavyweight champion and youngest titleholder in UFC history, (FAC ¶ 257); Gina “Conviction” Carano, often referred to as the “Face of Women's MMA,” (FAC ¶ 261); Frankie “The Answer” Edgar, a former UFC Lightweight champion, (FAC ¶ 265); Matt “The Hammer” Hamill, a recently retired UFC fighter who is congenitally deaf, (FAC ¶¶ 269–71); Brian “All American” Stann, a military veteran, Silver Star recipient, active UFC fighter, and President of Hire Heroes USA, a non-profit organization that helps military veterans obtain employment and transition back to civilian life, (FAC ¶¶ 275, 273); and Jennifer Santiago, an MMA fighter in the World Combat League, founded by Chuck Norris, (FAC ¶¶ 342, 344).

In addition to professional fighters, Plaintiffs include a number of amateurs and MMA enthusiasts. Danielle Hobeika is an MMA follower and amateur fighter currently living in New York. (FAC ¶ 299). Joseph Lozito has been a fan of MMA since 1993 and enjoys watching live professional MMA. (FAC ¶¶ 323, 326–27). Chris Reitz is a longtime MMA supporter who wants to compete in amateur MMA in New York, but is uncertain as to whether he is permitted to do so. (FAC ¶¶ 336, 341). Beth and Donna Hurrle are the founders and editors of Gals Guide to MMA, “an MMA website by, and for, women.” (FAC ¶ 306).

Plaintiffs also include a number of amateur MMA trainers and promoters. Steve Kardian is an MMA instructor and co-founder of Thornwood MMA and Fitness School in Westchester, New York. (FAC ¶ 316). Erik Owings is an MMA trainer and owner of Mushin Mixed Martial Arts academy in New York City. (FAC ¶¶ 331, 335). Don Lilly is an MMA promoter, a manager of professional and amateur MMA fighters, and an owner of an MMA gym in New York. (FAC ¶ 281). On May 19, 2012, Lilly organized an amateur MMA event in North Tonawanda, New York, which was attended by over 1,000 people. (FAC ¶¶ 283, 285). Shannon Miller is a former professional boxer and boxing promoter. (FAC ¶ 289). He currently produces amateur MMA events in New York through 5Guys Fighting. ( Id.). In 2009, Miller had planned to hold an amateur Muay Thai and kickboxing event at the State University of Albany; a UFC fighter was scheduled to appear at the event, although not to compete. (FAC ¶ 292). The New York State Athletic Commission (the “SAC”), however, citing the “professional” appearance of the posters used to promote the event, shut down the event. ( Id.).

B. The Origins of MMA

MMA traces its historical origins to 648 B.C. and the ancient Olympic sport of “pankration,” which combined “boxing, wrestling, and fighting with the feet.” (FAC ¶ 22). Modern MMA, in turn, dates back roughly 80 years to the Brazilian martial art of “vale tudo,” that artists such as Rorion Gracie and the Gracie family developed into Brazilian jiu jitsu, “a ground-based system of fighting that utilizes submission and grappling techniques.” (FAC ¶ 26). In 1993, competitors from a variety of martial arts disciplines, including kickboxing, karate, sumo, boxing, and jiu jitsu, participated in a tournament in Denver, Colorado. (FAC ¶ 27). Royce Gracia, brother of Rorion Gracie and one of the smallest fighters in the tournament, ultimately prevailed, and catapulted Brazilian jiu jitsu to worldwide recognition. (FAC ¶ 28). MMA soon experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. (FAC ¶ 3).

Early MMA tournaments attracted interest by advertising the sport's violence and its risk to fighters. (FAC ¶ 27). In what Plaintiffs acknowledge was an “ill-advised marketing strategy,” fights were sold as “no holds barred” contests in which “There Are No Rules!” (FAC ¶ 30). As one MMA advertisement promised, [e]ach match will run until there is a designated winner—by means of knock-out, surrender, doctor's intervention, or death. ( Id.).

C. New York's Combative Sport Ban

As MMA gained popularity, many states began considering bans on the sport. In 1996, the New York Legislature held hearings on the question “Should New York Ban Extreme Fighting?” (FAC ¶ 42 n. 17). At the hearings, representatives from leading MMA promoters testified about MMA's rules, and medical experts testified about the risks that the sport posed to fighters' safety. (FAC ¶¶ 83–90). Legislators who supported a ban voiced two primary concerns: (1) MMA fights posed a health and safety risk to fighters, and (2) MMA fights undermined public morals and had a negative influence on New York youths. (FAC ¶¶ 38–43).

In 1997, the legislature enacted the Combative Sport Ban, which prohibits any “combative sport” within the state of New York. The Ban defines a “combative sport” as “any professional match or exhibition” in which participants may deliver “kicks, punches or blows of any kind to the body of an opponent,” but excludes boxing, wrestling, and certain “martial arts” (including judo, karate, and tae kwon do). N.Y. Unconsol. Laws § 8905–a(1). The legislation effectively bans live, professional MMA in New York by prohibiting the State Athletic Commission (“SAC”) from approving licenses for such matches or exhibitions. Id. § 8905–a(2).1

D. The Evolution of Modern MMA

In the years since New York implemented the Combative Sport Ban, fan interest in MMA has dramatically increased. MMA training and promotion have changed as well. Modern, professional MMA fighters now train in various martial and combat arts, including karate, jiu jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, grappling, judo, Muay Thai, and wrestling. (FAC ¶ 1). Fighters may strike their opponents while standing or grappling on the ground. (FAC ¶ 46). In the UFC, fights are typically staged inside “the Octagon,” an eight-sided padded-floor platform surrounded by a chain-link fence. (FAC ¶ 47). Because the Octagon resembles a cage, MMA is sometimes colloquially referred to as “cage fighting.” ( Id.).

Modern MMA within the UFC is quite different from the “no holds barred” tournaments of the early 1990s. In 1997, fighters began competing in weight classes. In 1999, the UFC and other promoters implemented five-minute rounds, between which fighters receive medical treatment. New rules also prohibit groin strikes, head butts, joint manipulation, kicking a downed opponent, or strikes to the back of the neck or head. (FAC ¶ 48).

In 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board sanctioned an MMA fight under its Unified Rules of MMA. (FAC ¶ 49). The following year, New Jersey became the first state to formally authorize MMA. (FAC ¶ 50). Nevada soon followed, largely adopting New Jersey's Unified Rules. ( Id.). Today, 46 states have chosen to regulate, rather than prohibit, MMA, with most states adopting the Unified Rules. (FAC ¶¶ 50, 52). MMA is now one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the United States. Fights are regularly broadcast on network and pay-per-view television, and Plaintiffs estimate that the UFC reaches five hundred million homes worldwide. (FAC ¶ 1).

Despite these developments, efforts to convince the New York legislature to overturn the Ban have repeatedly failed. (FAC ¶¶ 6, 74.)

E. MMA's Message

Plaintiffs describe, at great length, the “messages” conveyed by professional MMA. They state that, in addition to a desire for fame and fortune, MMA fighters compete to showcase their training, technique, discipline, courage, and determination. (FAC ¶¶ 210–12). The movements involved in MMA—the strikes, holds, and...

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