Vanhorn v. Nebraska State Racing Com'n

Decision Date27 January 2004
Docket NumberNo. 4:03 CV 3336.,4:03 CV 3336.
Citation304 F.Supp.2d 1151
PartiesStacy Lane VANHORN, Plaintiff, v. NEBRASKA STATE RACING COMMISSION, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Nebraska

Island, NE, Terri M. Weeks, Boucher Law Firm, Lincoln, NE, for Plaintiff.

Jennifer Tomka, Attorney General's Office, Lincoln, NE, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

KOPF, Chief District Judge.

The plaintiff, Dr. Stacy Lane VanHorn, a licensed veterinarian in the State of Nebraska, brings this § 1983 action against the Nebraska State Racing Commission, its executive secretary, Dennis Oelschlager, and its three gubernatorially appointed members, Dennis P. Lee (chairman), Janell Beveridge, and Bob Volk. The plaintiff, who held a special license from the commission to treat racehorses during 2001, claims that (1) he was denied procedural due process when he (a) was disciplined by the commission in 2002 and (b) was denied either an annual license or a temporary license to treat racehorses in 2002; (2) he was denied a first amendment right of freedom of association by being banned from public areas of racetracks; (3) he was denied equal protection because (a) a directive was issued that effectively precluded only the plaintiff and his employer from treating racehorses off-premises, and (b) other similarly situated individuals were licensed while under investigation by the commission; and (4) he was denied procedural due process when he was not issued an annual or temporary license in 2003.

At issue is a motion to dismiss (filing 19) that has been filed by all defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In support of their motion, the defendants argue that (1) the plaintiff does not have a property interest in a special license to practice veterinary medicine on racehorses; (2) even if he had a property interest in a license, the plaintiff was afforded all the process he was due; (3) the individual defendants are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity; (4) the individual defendants are entitled to qualified good faith immunity; (5) the commission and the other defendants in their official capacities are entitled to sovereign immunity; (6) the plaintiff has failed to state a valid first amendment claim; (7) the plaintiff has failed to state a valid equal protection claim; (8) the Younger abstention doctrine should be applied because the plaintiff's disciplinary proceeding remains pending on appeal in state court; and (9) the plaintiff's claims are barred by (a) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, (b) res judicata, or (c) collateral estoppel. The plaintiff disputes each of these arguments.

I. Background

It appears from the plaintiff's 24-page, 77-paragraph complaint (filing 1) that the commission served him with a formal disciplinary complaint on January 10, 2002, charging, among other things, that the plaintiff had violated the rules of racing during 2001 by administering Clonidine to certain horses within 24 hours of post time. He was also notified on such date that if he applied for a license as a racehorse veterinarian in 2002, the executive secretary would refer his application to the commission for a hearing with the recommendation that the plaintiff be required to show cause why the license should not be denied.

Plaintiff applied for a license on April 5, 2002, and was informed by the executive secretary that his application would be held for further investigation. On May 10, 2002, the plaintiff applied for a temporary license, which was denied by the commission upon the recommendation of the executive secretary.

The commission conducted a hearing on its complaint and on the plaintiff's April license application on September 23-24, October 22, and November 25, 2002. The commission found numerous rules violations and it disciplined the plaintiff by imposing a $2,000 fine, banning him from any premises under the commission's jurisdiction until January 1, 2006, and declaring him ineligible for a license during the period of the ban. In April 2003, the commission also issued a directive that any racehorse examined or treated off-premises by a veterinarian who was ineligible for a commission license would not be permitted to race for 14 days. The plaintiff claims that such directive applied only to horses that were treated by him or his employer, Dr. Douglas L. Brunk, who apparently was also disciplined by the commission and declared ineligible for licensing.

Pursuant to the Nebraska Administrative Procedure Act, the plaintiff appealed the commissioner's decision by filing an action is the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska. The court ruled on May 20, 2003, that there was insufficient evidence to support any of the commission's charges except a failure by the plaintiff to properly handle, package, and report his drug supply; it also found that the proper remedy for such violation was a $2,000 fine and a ban lasting until July 1, 2003. (The defendants state that the commission has appealed the district court's order to the Nebraska Court of Appeals, and, accordingly, that the order has been stayed.)

On February 8, 2003, the plaintiff attended races at Fonner Park, as a spectator. The executive secretary had him arrested for trespassing. He was found not guilty of the charge. Thereafter, on May 26, 2003, the plaintiff visited the simulcast area of State Fair Park. The executive secretary ordered a racetrack employee to remove the plaintiff from the premises.

On July 2, 2003, the plaintiff again applied for an annual license. He was told the next day that his application would be held for further investigation. On July 8, 2003, the plaintiff applied for a temporary license. That application was also placed on hold on July 17, 2003. A hearing on the temporary license application was then set for September 22, 2003, well past the end of the 2003 racing season.

The plaintiff filed suit in this court on September 15, 2003. In addition to seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the individual defendants, he requests unspecified declaratory and injunctive relief.

II. Discussion

In determining whether the complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted, I am required to accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, but to give no effect to conclusory allegations of law. See Mattes v. ABC Plastics, Inc., 323 F.3d 695, 698 (8th Cir.2003). A complaint should not be dismissed "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id. (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)).

Thus, as a practical matter, a dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is likely to be granted only in the unusual case in which a plaintiff includes allegations that show on the face of the complaint that there is some insuperable bar to relief. Krentz v. Robertson, 228 F.3d 897, 905 (8th Cir.2000). In other words, dismissal is justified only when the allegations of the complaint itself clearly demonstrate that plaintiff does not have a claim. 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357, at 344-45 (2d ed. 1990).

A. Quasi-Judicial Immunity

"Persons who perform quasi-judicial functions are entitled to absolute immunity. See Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512-16, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978); see also Kwoun v. Southeast Missouri Professional Standards Review Organization, 811 F.2d 401, 407 (8th Cir.1987). The Supreme Court has held that absolute immunity is appropriate when an official's functions are similar to those involved in the judicial process, see Butz, 438 U.S. at 513, 98 S.Ct. 2894, an official's actions are likely to result in lawsuits for damages by disappointed parties, see id. at 515, 98 S.Ct. 2894, and sufficient safeguards exist in the regulatory framework to control unconstitutional conduct, see id. at 512, 98 S.Ct. 2894. See also Ostrzenski v. Seigel, 177 F.3d 245, 249 (4th Cir.1999), and Romano v. Bible, 169 F.3d 1182, 1187 (9th Cir.1999)." Dunham v. Wadley, 195 F.3d 1007, 1010 (8th Cir.1999) (holding that members of veterinary medicine licensing board were absolutely immune from suit).

For the reasons discussed below, I find that the individual defendants are absolutely immune from suit on paragraphs 51, 53 (in part), 54, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, and 63 of the plaintiff's "first cause of action," and on paragraph 66 of the plaintiff's "second cause of action." In all other respects, the defendants' motion to dismiss on the basis of quasi-judicial immunity will be denied.

1. First Cause of Action

It seems clear that the individual defendants (i.e., Oelschlager, Lee, Beveridge, and Volk sued in their individual capacities) are absolutely immune from suit with respect to their conduct of the plaintiff's disciplinary proceeding.1 The Nebraska State Racing Commission is a state agency with established procedures for deciding "contested cases," including disciplinary proceedings involving its licensees.2 See generally Durousseau v. Nebraska State Racing Com'n, 194 Neb. 288, 231 N.W.2d 566, 569 (1975) (commission has authority to initiate proceeding to determine if its rules have been violated); Neb.Rev.Stat. §§ 2-1201 to 2-1205.

Those administrative hearing procedures closely resemble judicial procedures and provide adequate constitutional safeguards. See Neb.Rev.Stat. §§ 84-913 to 84-919; Title 294, Nebraska Administrative Code ("294 NAC"), Chapter 7. Among other things, the commission is required to prepare an official record of the testimony and exhibits presented at the hearing, 294 NAC at § 7.001.10; a party may request that the commission be bound by the rules of evidence applicable in state court, id. at § 7.001.10A(1); the commission may...

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