COA reverses default ruling against race horse veterinarian

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Katie Stancombe for www.theindianalawyer.com

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a decision that found a Hoosier racehorse veterinarian in default without a hearing in a disciplinary action against him by Indiana Horse Racing Commission.

Joseph Baliga is a licensed veterinarian who specializes in the care and treatment of racehorses. While working at Anderson Hoosier Park in September 2016, a security officer reported that he had seen Baliga give a banned substance to a horse.

Baliga faced two disciplinary proceedings by the Indiana Horse Racing Commission — under 71 I.A.C. 10-2, initiated by and conducted by on-site judges at the track, and under 71 I.A.C. 10-3, a separate disciplinary proceeding initiated by the IHRC and its executive director.

Baliga’s license was temporarily suspended by the IHRC until the merits of the case were heard. During a disciplinary hearing conducted by IHRC judges on Oct. 31, 2016, the presiding judge stated, “[W]e should hurry along. We should do what we can to get this case heard on the merits.” However, no further hearing on the merits was scheduled.

An “administrative complaint” was then filed against Baliga by the IHRC executive director, proposing a five-year suspension of Baliga’s IHRC license and a $20,000 fine. The complaint stated he had 20 days to make a written request for a hearing.

Baliga filed an appeal of his temporary suspension with the IHRC but did not make a separate request for a hearing on the administrative complaint under the assumption that there would be a hearing on the merits of the case, for which Baliga’s attorney believed a further request for a hearing was unnecessary.

Six days after the deadline had passed, an administrative law judge ultimately found Baliga in default and the IHRC affirmed the ALJ’s order in full. Baliga petitioned the Madison Circuit Court to reverse the IHRC’s finding of default and to remand the matter to the commission for a hearing on the merits but was denied.

On appeal, Baliga contended that the ALJ and the IHRC should not have found him in default and that the trial court erred in denying his petition. The appellate court agreed, rejecting the IHRC’s claim that its entry of default could not be challenged and reversing the trial court’s decision in Joseph Baliga, DVM v. Indiana Horse Racing Commission, Indiana Horse Racing Commission Staff, 17A-MI-3009.

In its decision, the appellate court found the IHRC did not cite any authority to support its position that an agency’s finding of default was non-reviewable under Ind. Code § 4-21.5-5-14(d) and found “no reason why such an action should be immune from judicial review.”

It also found fault with the IHRC’s reliance on 71 I.A.C. 10-3-20, noting that the “seemingly clear line” between its two disciplinary proceedings was “significantly blurred from the very beginning.”

“The Hoosier Park judges, instead of setting a date for a disciplinary hearing under 71 I.A.C. 10-2, stated that the matter ‘will be referred to the Executive Director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission for further action,’” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the court. “The ruling did not say whether this ‘further action’ would occur in the Hoosier Park proceeding under 71 I.A.C. 10-2 — regulations that do not contemplate a role for the executive director — or in a separate IHRC proceeding under 71 I.A.C. 10-3.”

The appellate court also found that confusion ensued when testimony from the executive director determined the IHRC was still investigating and considering whether to take further action, although on-site judges could take disciplinary action regardless.

Lastly, it noted that the judges left the ball in the IHRC’s court when failing to schedule a hearing for the case’s merits.

“Taken together, these events created the distinct impression that the Hoosier Park disciplinary proceeding and any IHRC disciplinary proceeding would, for all intents and purposes, be consolidated,” Vaidik concluded. “As such, they should not be faulted — or defaulted — for thinking that another hearing request was unnecessary.”

The case was reversed and remanded to the IHRC for a hearing on the merits.

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