CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court of Appeals reversed a decision by Kanawha Circuit Court to suspend the occupational permit of seven jockeys for 30 days and imposed a fine of $1,000 to each of them for violating a rule governing horse racing.

“After review of the circuit court’s order, the assignments of error, the applicable law, and pertinent portions of the appendix, for the reasons stated below, we reverse the circuit court’s order,” the recent opinion states.

Justice Brent Benjamin authored the majority opinion.

A jockey’s weight is used to determine which horse he will ride in the upcoming race and, generally, younger horses are assigned lighter jockeys and more mature or better-performing horses are assigned heavier jockeys.

“The purpose of having horses carry different weights is to make the races more competitive,” the opinion states. “The betting public is informed if a jockey is overweight prior to a race, and this information is used in making wagering decisions.”

In March 2009, management of the racetrack at Charles Town Races & Slots heard rumors that certain jockeys were permitted to ride in excess of their stated weights and, as a result, track management installed two hidden surveillance cameras in the area where the weigh outs occurred.

The day after video recordings were made of weigh outs, the clerk of scales was relieved of his duties and removed from the track and the respondents were summoned to hearings on allegations that they engaged in corrupt activities and ridden at weights in excess of their reported weights.

In April 2009, the board of stewards concluded that Lawrence Reynolds, Anthony Mawing, Alexis Rios-Conde, Jesus Sanchez, Dale Whittaker, Luis Perez and Tony A. Maragh had violated certain provisions of the West Virginia Code of State Rules, including failure to declare an overweight amount and the board of stewards imposed a $1,000 fine on each of the jockeys and a 30-day suspension of each of the jockey’s occupational permits.

The respondents appealed the decision of the board of stewards to the commission and the administrative de novo hearing before the commission hearing examiner occurred over five days in August and September 2009.

The hearing examiner found that the respondents were guilty of conniving with the clerk of scales in the commission of a corrupt practice by engaging in improper weigh outs. The decision was adopted by the commission, which suspended each respondent’s occupational permit for 30 days and imposed the fine of $1,000 each.

The respondents then appealed the commission’s decision to Kanawha Circuit Court, which reversed and vacated the commission’s order in its Sept. 2, 2014, final order. The circuit court found that the commission engaged in improper rule-making by defining two terms in an administrative rule, and the retroactive application of the new rule to the respondents’ conduct was unlawful.

The commission then appealed the circuit court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

“This Court’s review of the Commission’s findings in light of the evidence of record compels us to conclude that the Commission’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence,” the opinions states. “If this Court had conducted a de novo review of the evidence below, we may have reached the same conclusions as the circuit court.”

Benjamin wrote that granting proper deference to the Commission’s findings and reviewing the findings for clear error, they believe that there is more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the Commission’s findings, and that the relevant evidence is such that a reasonable mind may accept it as adequate to support the Commission’s conclusions.

“Stated differently, we are unable to conclude that the Commission’s findings are without a rational basis,” the opinion states. “Therefore, we find that the circuit court abused its discretion in reversing the Commission’s order.”

The Supreme Court reversed the Kanawha Circuit Court order that had reversed and vacated the Racing Commission’s order that suspended the occupational permit of each of the respondent jockeys for 30 days and imposed a $1,000 fine on each of the respondents.

The WVRC is represented by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Senior Deputy Attorney General Kelli D. Talbott.

Reynolds, Mawing, Rios-Conde, Sanchez, Whittaker, Perez and Maragh are represented by Benjamin L. Bailey and Christopher S. Morris of Bailey & Glasser.

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 14-0957

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