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Rachel Kosmal McCart is a lifelong horsewoman and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC, an equine law firm based in the Portland, Oregon area. Rachel is a member of the New York, California, Oregon and Washington State bars and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rachel currently competes in three-day eventing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What to Expect at USEF Disciplinary Hearings

Part of what we do at Equine Legal Solutions is represent clients in United States Equestrian Federation disciplinary hearings (as well as breed association discipline actions).  Most of our clients are defending themselves against alleged USEF rule violations, often involving equine drugs and medications. Other clients are on the offense, urging the USEF to take action on official grievances filed against fellow competitors or trainers.  Although the bare bones are described in the USEF rules, the USEF disciplinary process is a bit mysterious if you haven't been through it before. Here are some important facts to know.

USEF Can't Suspend You Without Notice and a Hearing

USEF Rule GR601 clearly states that no one can be suspended or otherwise barred from competing without a notice and a hearing.  So, if your horse flunks a drug test, you're not automatically suspended.  Instead, you'll receive an official notice from USEF in the mail.  And it might be quite a while after the competition - months, even.  So don't think you're in the clear if your horse was drug tested and you haven't heard anything within 30 days.

Discipline Actions Don't Always Start with USEF

Clearly, if your horse is drug-tested at a USEF-sanctioned show and it tests positive for prohibited medications, the USEF will notify you of a potential disciplinary action.  Likewise, if the steward at a USEF-sanctioned show observes you engaging in a practice clearly prohibited by USEF rules, you'll likely be hearing from USEF about it. However, not all disciplinary actions start with USEF.  Once in a while, an exhibitor is upset enough about a perceived show unfairness or USEF rule violation to put their grievance or protest in writing and submit it to USEF with the hefty $200 filing fee ($300 for non-members). 

The time window for filing a protest or grievance about something that happened at a USEF show is very small.  Per USEF Rule GR603, the protester has to submit a written complaint (signed, with their name and address - no anonymous complaints) to the show management within 48 hours of the alleged USEF rule violation, or the protester can submit their complaint directly to the USEF within 10 business days after the last day of the USEF recognized competition.  Because of the timing, most complaints are submitted directly to USEF.

The Clock Starts Ticking When You Receive a Notice

When you receive a notice from USEF of an alleged rule violation, you may not have much time to act.  USEF Rule GR606 provides that the USEF only has to give 20 days advance written notice of a hearing on a disciplinary matter (unless your hearing is before the relevant show committee, in which case only 24 hours is required).  How much notice you receive is typically a function of when the USEF Hearing Committee meets next, and how full its calendar is.

As a practical matter, none of our clients has ever received less than 60 days notice prior to a hearing, and 90-120 days is more typical.  The notice always comes by mail.  And because USEF hearing notices are mailed to your most recent address on file with USEF, when you send in your USEF membership, it makes sense to use an address that's not only current, but also gets checked on a regular basis. 

Although you may receive 90 or even 120 days notice prior to the USEF hearing date, you won't have that much time to prepare.  The notice will contain a deadline by which all your evidence must be submitted to the USEF Hearing Committee.  Evidence submitted by the deadline is compiled by USEF staff and provided to the Committee prior to the hearing date.  On the hearing date, the Committee usually meets before the hearing to discuss the cases to be heard that day, including evidence submitted, and the Committee may have already made a preliminary determination before your hearing.  So, it helps to submit your evidence in advance.

You Can Postpone the USEF Hearing Date

If you can't make the hearing date or you need time to gather evidence and retain counsel, you can request that your USEF hearing date be moved. But, per USEF Rule GR607, you have to ask for a continuance quickly - at least 21 days prior to the hearing date AND you have to provide a $750 fee.  Note that asking for a continuance may be well worth the $750 if the scheduled hearing date is in the middle of a busy competition season.  While it's possible, Equine Legal Solutions has not yet had a client whose continuance request was denied.

The USEF Hearing Committee Didn't Just Fall off the Turnip Truck

Most of the members of the USEF Hearing Committee (all volunteers) have been in the horse industry all their lives.   They're breeders, exhibitors, judges and trainers. They've typically been on the Committee a long time. So, they know how the game is played, and they've heard all the excuses.  Your explanation of "The groom gave him the wrong meds" just won't fly, and neither will "I didn't know it was against the rules."  A winning smile won't be enough.  You'll need to prepare your defense with the deep knowledge and experience of the Committee in mind - don't insult their intelligence.  Sometimes, the best you can do is admit your mistake and beg for leniency.

Why You Want an Equine Attorney for your USEF Hearing

USEF Rule GR608 provides you with the opportunity to have your lawyer represent you at a USEF hearing.  Unless you don't care if you get the maximum penalty for a USEFUSEF hearing process before knows what to expect.  She can develop a good plan of action for your defense, and she'll know what the possible outcomes are, including how to negotiate a plea agreement or the timing of a USEF suspension.  She can help you prepare your evidence, testimony and witnesses, and make sure your case is presented to the USEF Hearing Committee in the best possible light.  She'll be able to predict what questions the USEF Hearing Committee might ask, and help you prepare the answers.

Perhaps equally important, a good equine attorney will be a calming influence who can help guide you and provide moral support in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the USEF hearing.  She'll manage the deadlines and submit the paperwork while you go on with your business.  At the USEF hearing, your attorney's job is to be your advocate.  If your equine attorney does her job, you'll leave for the hearing with the comfort that at least one person knows what's going on, and she's squarely in your corner.  Your equine attorney can speak for you and ask USEF witnesses tough questions without compromising your case.  Her job is to be poised and articulate, so you don't have to be.  

For more information about USEF disciplinary hearings, and a free consultation, contact Equine Legal Solutions.

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