Court Releases Full Reasons in UFC New York Litigation

Late last month Federal Judge Kimba Wood has released brief reasons for judgement denying Zuffa’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing New York from using their Combative Sport Law to shut down a planned UFC event at Madison Square Gardens.

Judge Wood promised ‘a longer opinion will follow’ and these full reasons have now been released.

In short the Court noted that by arranging an event at Madison Square Gardens the UFC did gain standing to challenge New York’s Combative Sports Law.  The Court sidestepped the request for a preliminary injunction, however, noting that no State Court has yet interpreted the potentially unconstitutionally vague New York law and until this was done the Federal Court did wished to avoid the “friction-generating error that can result when a federal court endeavors to construe a novel state act not yet reviewed by the state’s highest court

The full reasons denying the preliminary injunction were as follows –

Because Plaintiff’s likelihood of success on the merits depends upon the interpretation of an unclear New York state statute that no New York state court has ever construed, this Court abstains under Pullman. See R.R. Comm’n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941).

“When anticipatory relief is sought in federal court against a state statute, respect for the place of the states in our federal system calls for close consideration of whether a ruling on the constitutionality of the state law is, in fact, necessary.” Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, 808 F.3d 118, 137 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 75 (1997). Pullman abstention is “[i]ntended to further the harmonious relation between state and federal courts” by allowing a federal court to abstain from deciding difficult and “unsettled questions of state law that are antecedent to federal constitutional questions.” Tunick v. Safir, 209 F.3d 67, 74 (2d. Cir. 2000) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see alsoVt. Right to Life Comm., Inc. v. Sorrell, 221 F.3d 376, 384 (2d Cir. 2000). Once the federal court has abstained, “the parties may seek a controlling interpretation of the challenged law from the state courts, whose decision could cause the federal constitutional question to disappear altogether.” Expressions, 808 F.3d at 137.Pullman abstention thus allows a federal court to avoid both: (1) unnecessary or premature decisions on questions of federal constitutional law, and (2) potentially erroneous rulings with respect to state law. Id. (quoting Allstate Ins. Co. v. Serio, 261 F.3d 143, 150 (2d Cir. 2001)); Tunick, 209 F.3d at 74 (quoting Pullman, 312 U.S. at 498-99).

The Second Circuit has held that abstention under Pullman is appropriate when three necessary conditions are met: “(1) an unclear state statute is at issue; (2) resolution of the federal constitutional issue depends on the interpretation of the state law; and (3) the law is susceptible to an interpretation by a state court that would avoid or modify the constitutional issue.” Wang v. Pataki, 164 F. Supp. 2d 406, 410-11 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (Sweet, J.) (quoting Greater N.Y. Metro. Food Council v. McGuire, 6 F.3d 75, 77 (2d Cir. 1993)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Jacoby & Meyers, LLP v. Presiding Justices of First, Second, Third, and Fourth Departments, Appellative Div. of Supreme Court of New York, 847 F. Supp. 2d 590, 599 n.56 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (Kaplan, J.); Winters v. Meyer, 442 F. Supp.2d 82, 88 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (McMahon, J.). “Abstention is not appropriate . . . where the meaning of a state statute is clear on its face.” Tunick, 209 F.3d at 74 (citing Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 236 (1984)). Although a court may invoke Pullman abstention when the three conditions listed above are met, it is not required to do so. Abstention is not appropriate where “important federal rights .. . outweigh the interests underlying the Pullman doctrine.” Kachalsky v. Cacace, 817 F. Supp. 2d 235, 253 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (Seibel, J.) (quoting Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83, 100 (2d Cir. 2004)).

The three essential conditions for Pullman abstention are met in this case. First, the CSL is an unclear state law, susceptible to multiple, different interpretations. In particular, it is not clear what falls within the scope of the martial arts exception to the definition of a combative sport. The CSL reads in pertinent part: “`martial arts’ shall include any professional match or exhibition sanctioned by” one of twelve listed Exempt Organizations. N.Y. Unconsol. Law § 8905-a(1). Since the CSL has been in force, the NYSAC has assumed primary responsibility for interpreting the statute and has embraced widely varying interpretations, including:

(1) that the CSL permits any kind of martial arts event except MMA, including those not sanctioned by an Exempt Organization, (Mot. for Prelim. Inj., 15);

(2) that the CSL permits an Exempt Organization to sanction only events featuring the martial art found in its name (i.e. the U.S. Judo Organization could only sponsor judo) (Compl. ¶ 82); and

(3) that the CSL permits Exempt Organizations to sanction only “single-discipline” martial arts, even though in practice the NYSAC allowed events featuring Muay-Thai, jiu-jitsu, and kickboxing, all of which combine elements from different martial arts (Compl. ¶¶ 81, 91-94).

Furthermore, the OAG, the entity charged with enforcing the CSL’s criminal provisions, has previously stated that the CSL would permit an MMA event sanctioned by an Exempt Organization, only to reverse course and declare that the CSL prohibited any professional MMA event, even if sanctioned by an Exempt Organization. (Compl. ¶¶ 104-113).

This history of shifting interpretations of the CSL, coupled with erratic enforcement that has often contradicted the official interpretation of the law, amply demonstrates that the CSL is unclear on its face. The CSL has never been interpreted by any New York state court, see (Defs.’ Opp’n, 8), leaving this Court with no guidance as to the proper scope of the statute.

The second and third conditions of Pullman are also met. Plaintiff’s federal constitutional vagueness challenge depends on the interpretation of this state law, and the CSL is susceptible to interpretations that would resolve the statutory uncertainty and eliminate the federal constitutional issue. “A statute is unconstitutionally vague only if it cannot be construed in a way that eliminates the vagueness.” Expressions, 808 F.3d at 144 (citing Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 403-04 (2010)). “[C]larity at the requisite level may be supplied by judicial gloss on an otherwise uncertain statute.” United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, 266 (1997). “Thus, in considering a vagueness challenge to a state statute, a federal court must consider not only how the law is presently drafted, but also how it has been construed by the state courts.” Expressions, 808 F.3d at 144 (quotingKolender, 461 U.S. 352, 358 (1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Plaintiff has identified two possible readings of the CSL that could eliminate the alleged statutory vagueness, namely (1) that an Exempt Organization could sanction any kind of event, and (2) that an Exempt Organization could sanction any event of the kind found in that Exempt Organization’s name. (Mot. for Prelim. Inj., 17). Either of these constructions would likely provide the judicial gloss necessary to resolve any uncertainty in the text of the statute and provide “ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes.” Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2556 (2015).[10]

Abstention under Pullman is particularly appropriate where, as here, the state law being interpreted governs issues that are traditionally a matter of state concern, such as health and safety. See Jancyn Mfg. Corp. v. Suffolk County, 583 F. Supp. 1364, 1371, 1376 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (citing Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 86-87 (1970)) (abstaining under Pullman when unclear state law involved matters of particular state concern); N.Y. State Rest. Ass’n v. New York City Bd. of Health, 556 F. 3d 114, 123 (2d Cir. 2009) (noting “the traditional primacy of state regulation in matters of health and safety”); Jones I, 888 F. Supp. 2d at 428-29 (finding that the CSL regulated the health and safety of combatants).

For these reasons, the Court concludes that it would be inappropriate to reach the merits of Plaintiff’s vagueness challenge to the CSL before any New York state court has had an opportunity to construe the challenged provision. See Hickerson v. City of New York, 932 F. Supp. 550, 556 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (Cedarbaum, J.) (“A federal court should not be the first to construe these provisions. Abstention is warranted to give the New York courts an opportunity to construe the resolution, for the courts could interpret these phrases in such a way as to change or eliminate the vagueness claims.”); Expressions, 808 F.3d at 139 (“[W]e cannot hold a duly enacted state law unconstitutional based entirely on speculation that the New York courts might give it a[] . . . problematic reading that its text does not require.”); cf. Kachalsky, 817 F. Supp. 2d at 253 (“Where, as here, state courts have settled upon an interpretation of the statute at issue, Pullman abstention is not warranted.”).[11]

The Court further concludes that abstention is warranted because the federal interests at stake do not, in this instance, outweigh those interests that underlie thePullman doctrine. First, there will be no chilling effect on First Amendment rights caused by the decision to abstain, because this Court has previously determined that the CSL does not prevent Plaintiff from engaging in any conduct protected by the First Amendment. See Jones II, 974 F. Supp. 2d at 333-39 (holding that the CSL does not prohibit protected speech or expressive conduct); see also Expressions,808 F.3d at 141 (abstaining under Pullman where “there is a minimal risk that any First Amendment rights . . . will be compromised by our decision to abstain”). Second, as stated in Jones III, Plaintiff may still seek a declaratory judgment in state court to settle decisively the scope of the CSL. See N. Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, No. 04-CV-9949, 2005 WL 926969, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2005) (Karas, J.) (quoting Accident Fund v. Baerwaldt, 579 F. Supp. 724, 728 (W.D. Mich. 1984)) (“An important consideration, apparently overlooked by plaintiffs, is their freedom to seek injunctive relief in the state courts; a course of action clearly contemplated by the Pullman . . . doctrine[].”).[12]

In sum, because this Court wishes to avoid the “friction-generating error that can result when a federal court endeavors to construe a novel state act not yet reviewed by the state’s highest court,” Expressions, 808 F.3d at 137, and because this Court believes that a state court determination of the meaning of the CSL will resolve or modify the federal constitutional issue, this Court abstains.

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