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Capone v. New Jersey Racing Commission

March 18, 2003

MARK CAPONE, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY RACING COMMISSION, RESPONDENT.
RICHARD SILVERMAN, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY RACING COMMISSION, RESPONDENT.



On appeal from New Jersey Racing Commission.

Before Judges Skillman, Cuff and Winkelstein.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued February 20, 2003

The Administrative Procedure Act (APA), N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15, requires an administrative agency to issue its final decision within forty-five days of receipt of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) initial decision, unless the Director of the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) extends this time period for good cause. N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(c). If an agency fails to issue a final decision within the allowed time, the ALJ's initial decision is "deemed adopted" as the agency's final decision. Ibid. The APA also requires an agency to include in its final decision findings of fact and conclusions of law supporting any rejection or modification of an ALJ's initial decision. N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(d). We have previously held that the lack of findings of fact and conclusions of law in an agency's final decision does not automatically require the ALJ's initial decision to be "deemed approved." However, we also have stated that an agency decision issued without findings of fact and conclusions of law does not conform with the APA and that an unjustifiable delay in satisfying this requirement could result in the ALJ's initial decision being transformed into the agency's final decision. These appeals involve one case where the Racing Commission did not issue a final decision with findings of fact and conclusions of law until seven months after receipt of the ALJ's initial decision and a second case where the Commission failed to satisfy this requirement for an entire year. We conclude in both cases that the Commission's delays in issuing final decisions with findings of fact and conclusions of law constituted gross indifference to its responsibilities under the APA. Accordingly, the Commission's decisions are reversed and the ALJ's initial decisions are "deemed adopted" as the Commission's final decisions.

On April 5, 1998, the Board of Judges at the Meadowlands Racetrack suspended the harness horse training license of Mark Capone, the trainer of "Stonebridge Do Run," for thirty days for a "reversal of form" in a race held on March 27, 1998, compared to the horse's two prior races on March 15 and 20, 1998. *fn1 On April 8, 1998, the Board suspended the harness racing license of Richard Silverman, the driver of Stonebridge Do Run in all three races, for fifteen days for the same violation. Both Capone and Silverman appealed their suspensions to the Commission, which referred the matters to the OAL.

On January 11, 2001, a one-day hearing was held before an ALJ. On March 8, 2001, the ALJ issued an initial decision, which concluded that the Commission had failed to prove the charges against either Capone or Silverman. On March 9, 2001, the Commission acknowledged receipt of this initial decision. On March 22, 2001, the Deputy Attorney General representing the Commission filed exceptions to the ALJ's initial decision. On April 2 and 17, 2001, Capone and Silverman submitted replies to these exceptions. On April 12, 2001, the Director of the OAL granted the Commission an extension to June 7, 2001, of the forty-five day statutory period for rendering a final decision on the ground that the Commission needed additional time to review the exceptions.

On May 24, 2001, the Commission staff sent a pro forma letter to Capone and Silverman notifying them that the Commission had decided at its May 16, 2001 meeting to reject the ALJ's initial decision and reinstate the suspensions imposed by the Board of Judges. This letter also stated that "[a] copy of the Commission's written decision, which will memorialize its final disposition of this matter, together with a ruling implementing said decision will be forwarded under separate cover."

More than four-and-a-half months later, on October 9, 2001, the Commission issued its final decision, which rejected the ALJ's initial decision and reinstated the Board's ruling that Capone and Silverman had raced Stonebridge Do Run in an inconsistent manner resulting in a reversal of form on March 27, 1998. By separate orders, also issued on October 9, 2001, the Commission reimposed the suspensions imposed by the Board and directed that the periods of suspension commence on November 16, 2001.

Capone and Silverman filed separate notices of appeal from this final decision, and the Commission granted their motions for stays pending the outcome of the appeals.

The procedural course of the second case was similar, except that the Commission took even longer to issue its final decision. The Board of Judges at Freehold Raceway suspended the license of Richard Silverman, also one of the appellants in the reversal of form appeal, for nine days for allegedly kicking a horse, "Star Fleet Cadet," in a race held on April 12, 2000. Silverman appealed this suspension and the matter was referred to the OAL. On March 1, 2001, a hearing was held before an ALJ that took less than an hour. On April 11, 2001, the ALJ issued an initial decision which concluded that the Commission had failed to prove the charge. On April 16, 2001, the Commission acknowledged receipt of the initial decision. On May 31, 2001, the Director of the OAL granted the Commission an extension to July 15, 2001, of the forty-five day statutory period for issuing a final decision on the ground that the Commission needed additional time to obtain and review the transcript of the hearing before the ALJ. However, the Commission did not even order this transcript until June 18, 2001, two months after it received the ALJ's initial decision. On July 17, 2001, the Director of the OAL granted the Commission a second extension of time to August 29, 2001, on the ground that the Commission had only received the transcript of the hearing on July 9, 2001.

On August 22, 2001, the Commission sent Silverman a pro forma letter, substantially similar to the one used in the reversal of form case, notifying him that the Commission had decided at its August 15, 2001, meeting to reject the ALJ's initial decision and reinstate the nine-day suspension imposed by the Board of Judges. More than seven-and-a-half months later, on April 11, 2002, a full year after the ALJ issued its initial decision, the Commission issued its final decision, which rejected the ALJ's decision and reinstated the Board's decision suspending Silverman's license for nine days.

Silverman filed a notice of appeal, and the Commission granted a stay pending the outcome of the appeal.

Appellants argue that the Commission's final decisions must be reversed, because the ALJ's initial decisions were "deemed approved" when the Commission failed to issue its decisions within the extended statutory periods for issuance of final agency decisions. In addition, appellants argue that the Commission's final decisions are not supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. Capone also argues that the administrative regulation upon which the Commission relied in suspending his license --which prohibits "any act or conduct detrimental to the sport" ...


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