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Thursday, January 08, 2009
Losers by AKO: Round 1

As a New Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission Begins Her Tenure, The Question is Begged as to Whether Two Former World Champions That Were Placed on Administrative Suspension by Her Predecessor Could Have Done Anything to Reclaim Their Boxing Licenses

by Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq.

Throughout the 1990s, Evander Holyfield and Junior Jones were among the boxing elite. Holyfield, a 1984 Olympic bronze medallist, former undisputed cruiserweight champion, and one-time undisputed heavyweight champion of the world punched his way into boxing immortality through a series of exciting fights, including his epic trilogy with fellow heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe and his crushing knockout of Mike Tyson. Jones, a former two-time New York Golden Gloves champion as an amateur, rose to prominence with a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Jorge Eliecer Julio for the WBA bantamweight title, and sealed his place in boxing history with back-to-back victories over the previously undefeated Mexican legend-in-the-making Marco Antonio Barrera for a portion of the super bantamweight crown. Like many top boxers before them though, both Holyfield and Jones took their share of losses against their younger peers as they got older and inched towards veteran status. Perhaps the most devastating blows they ever received, however, came not from any of their opponents in the ring, but rather from the New York State Athletic Commission (hereinafter the “Commission”) and its former Commissioner, Ron Scott Stevens. The punch thrown: an administrative suspension.

Holyfield was placed on administrative suspension in 2005 following a lopsided points loss to fringe heavyweight contender Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden. His loss convinced the Commission that his skills had eroded to such a degree that he should not be boxing in New York anymore. Jones, who was planning a comeback, was given his suspension around the same time after the Commission decided he had “diminished skills,” despite not having fought in three years. In an instant, Holyfield became a marginalized, but still lucrative boxer fighting both overseas and under the auspices of some of America’s weakest boxing commissions, while Jones was effectively retired by the athletic commission of the very state where he fought his way into amateur boxing greatness. Neither appealed their suspension. While many boxing cognoscenti felt that Holyfield and Jones were being saved from themselves by their respective suspensions, the laws governing the use of the administrative suspension beg the question: How would Holyfield and Jones have successfully contested their suspensions? Or, to put it another way, how could they have avoided being losers by administrative knockout?

The Definition of Administrative Suspension and Its Implications

Under Section 1812 of the Unconsolidated Laws of New York, the New York State Athletic Commission is given the power to exercise its discretion when issuing boxing licenses so that it may determine whether the “financial responsibility, experience, character, and general fitness of an applicant…are such that participation of such applicant will be consistent with the public interest, convenience or necessity of the safety of boxing and wrestling participants and with the best interests of boxing or wrestling generally[.]” In its exercise of this discretion, the Commission is empowered to issue both medical suspensions, which are based on objective medical findings of a fighter’s temporary or permanent unfitness to box, and administrative suspensions, which are subjective and based on any number of factors, including personal observations of members of the Commission and anecdotal evidence from people around boxing.

The differences between the two types of suspensions are significant. Under a medical suspension, a professional boxer is not permitted to receive a license to box for a fixed or indefinite period of time in any member commission of the Association of Boxing Commissions, the organization that promotes uniformity in boxing throughout the United States, the Native American Tribal Nations, and Canada. If a boxer is administratively suspended by an individual commission, however, another state, tribal nation, or provincial commission may use its discretion in determining whether or not to license a suspended boxer to fight. Notations regarding both types of suspension are made in a compendium put together by Fight Fax, Inc., the official record keeper of professional boxing. Each commission has access to the suspension information contained in Fight Fax, Inc.’s database and can base their decisions on whether or not to issue licenses based upon the information within.

The Appeals Process for a New York State Athletic Commission Suspension

The New York State Athletic Commission is mandated to deliver all bulletins and notices to its licensees to the licensee’s registered address. Once a boxer is suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission and receives notice of same at his registered address, he is entitled to submit a written request for a hearing “to determine whether such suspension should be rescinded” within 30 days after “the date of notice of suspension.” At the hearing, “licensees and other witnesses shall testify under oath or affirmation, which may be administered by any commissioner or authorized representative of the commission actually present.” The New York State Athletic Commission is the “sole judge of the relevancy and competency of testimony and other evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and the sufficiency of the evidence” presented at the hearing. After the hearing, “the commission representatives conducting the hearing shall submit findings of fact and recommendations to the commission, which shall not be binding on the commission.”

In the case of administrative suspensions, the above-referenced procedure may seem absurd when its application is contemplated. That is because, in essence, the boxer must petition the New York State Athletic Commission within a month of his administrative suspension to argue that he does not have, for example, “diminished skills” and that the Commission’s subjective observations and conclusions are flawed. Further, the onus falls entirely on the boxer to disprove the basis of the administrative suspension and not at all on the Commission, which must simply furnish a rational basis for their decision to suspend the boxer and does not need to assign any probative value to the evidence presented. In short, the boxer-petitioner is telling the same administrative body that just deemed him unfit to fight anymore that he is fit to continue fighting through the presentation of evidence that the Commission need not consider. Even if the appeals process sounds like an exercise in futility, however, an attempt to bypass the initial appeal can be fatal to a boxer’s chance to get his suspension lifted. This will be discussed more below.

Taking The New York State Athletic Commission to Court

Under Article 78 of New York State’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, an individual that is aggrieved by the action of an administrative agency may file a lawsuit against that agency to challenge the basis of its determination. Among the issues that may be raised in an Article 78 proceeding “is ‘whether a determination was made in error of law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion[]’” or “lacking a rational basis[.]” An Article 78 proceeding “must be commenced within four months after the administrative determination to be reviewed becomes ‘final and binding upon the petitioner.’” Only when the individual seeking review has been harmed by the administrative determination does it become “final and binding.” Necessarily then, when an agency creates the impression that a determination was intended to be non-conclusive, the statute of limitations does not start to run.

Generally, an individual seeking to file an Article 78 proceeding must first exhaust all of his administrative remedies, meaning that if the government agency that suspended them had an in-house appeals process, the individual would first have to go through that appeals process before he could seek relief from the courts. A court may dismiss an Article 78 proceeding for not utilizing said appeals processes. An exception to the general rule arises if an aggrieved party can establish that it would have been futile to exhaust all of their administrative remedies prior to filing an Article 78 proceeding. This can be demonstrated by showing that the appeals process set up by a particular agency has an air of futility, either because those reviewing the appeal are the exact same people that issued the suspension in the first instance, that employees of the agency displayed an animus unique to the individual prior to his suspension, or otherwise.

The New York State Athletic Commission is a New York State administrative agency and, as such, is subject to judicial review through an Article 78 proceeding. Prior to filing an Article 78 proceeding against the Commission, a boxer placed on administrative suspension must first go through the initial hearing detailed above. If a boxer were to bypass the hearing and simply file an Article 78 lawsuit, a court would be well within its discretion to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. That is, of course, unless they can demonstrate to the court that it would have been futile based upon the rationale provided by the Commission for their administrative suspension.

Round 2: Tomorrow.

[This article will be published in the Spring 2009 issue of the New York State Bar Association's Entertainment and Sports Law Journal]

Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq. is an attorney at the New York law firm of Heidell, Pittoni, Murphy & Bach, L.L.P. He is also a New York State licensed boxing manager and the Chairman of the Sports Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. Mr. Haberman represented Junior Jones’s manager back in 2006. ©

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Sports should be governed by extremely fair laws. Anything less than this will vitiate the very spirit of sports
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Blogger Gururaj -- 1/09/2009 4:01 AM  

An interesting postscript to the Evander Holyfield story: last month he fought World Boxing Association heavyweight titleholder Nicolai Valuev (7' tall, 320#s) in Switzerland, and according to just about everyone who saw the fight - except, alas, two of the three judges - was the better fighter. Many people in the crowd booed when the decision was announced and Valuev won.

By all rights, Holyfield should have a title belt today.

Anonymous Peter -- 1/09/2009 1:18 PM  

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