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UFC loses challenge to New York's MMA ban for lack of standing

The UFC’s New York legal drama came to a (temporary?) close yesterday, but there’s reason to be optimistic. Paul Gift explains.

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Yesterday, a New York judge dealt a strangely-encouraging death blow to the UFC's attempt to overturn the state's two-decade long ban on professional mixed martial arts. In the culmination of a three-year court battle, the Judge Kimba Wood ruled that the UFC did not have proper standing to bring its claims. In an interesting twist, she also gave the UFC a metaphorical pat on the back as she kicked them out of court.

Some media outlets have reported that Judge Wood dismissed the UFC's claims but make no mistake about it, the UFC lost outright. The case was in the summary judgment phase which is essentially when a judge views the evidence in a light most favorable to the opponent and may rule the case to be so one-sided that there's no need to go to trial. When this happens, the filing party wins a judgment in their favor.

The UFC and the New York Attorney General (AG) each filed motions for summary judgment last July. Yesterday, Judge Wood denied the UFC's motion while granting the New York AG's in full. It was a clear-cut victory for New York yet peculiarly motivational for the UFC as the judge told them they lost but then imparted words of advice and encouragement.

Three years ago, the UFC made various claims as to why the ban in New York unconstitutionally constrains MMA-related activity. All but one of those claims was dismissed as the case wore on. The sole survivor was the UFC's contention the New York ban is unconstitutionally vague as applied to various involvements in MMA. In court, this was referred to as the UFC's "as-applied vagueness challenge."

The New York AG disputed the vagueness of the MMA statute and also claimed the UFC didn't have proper standing to challenge it since the promotion wasn't actually injured.

In her ruling, Judge Wood focused on two points: (1) The UFC must establish an "injury in fact" and can no longer rest on allegations. (2) Standing is determined as of the moment a lawsuit begins. The UFC "cannot rely on factual developments after November 15, 2011 - the date on which they commenced this action - to establish standing."

This second point is critical because the UFC didn't claim to be injured from actual prosecution by the government. Instead, they claimed injury via the threat of prosecution from the New York AG's office.

According to Judge Wood, "To establish an imminent threat of prosecution, [the UFC] must submit evidence of their concrete plans to organize and promote [MMA], and must demonstrate that enforcement of the Ban against those plans is certainly impending, or at least a substantial risk." This is what leads to the UFC's demise.

Judge Wood finds that the UFC's injury claims rely almost entirely on events that happened after the start of the lawsuit. In particular, the New York AG reversed its position on whether a professional MMA event could be sanctioned by an authorized organization (such as the World Kickboxing Association), but did so after the case was originally filed. Is such a reversal vague and injurious? Due to the timing, it doesn't matter.

Here's Judge Wood's explanation:

In briefing and argument related to its motions to dismiss the initial complaint and First Amended Complaint, the [New York] OAG suggested that Zuffa would be able to promote a professional MMA event sanctioned by one of the Ban's exempt organizations. After Zuffa began planning such an event, however, the OAG reversed course and declared all sanctioned professional MMA illegal under the Ban. In its briefing, Zuffa describes that reversal as ‘a direct cause of [its] injury,' characterizing the OAG's latest stance as akin to a threat of prosecution.

The OAG's conduct during this litigation, however, is irrelevant to the Court's standing analysis. Zuffa must establish that it faced an imminent threat of prosecution at the time it filed this lawsuit, not afterward. On the present record, Zuffa cannot make that showing. (Emphasis added)

Essentially, the New York AG's office went all wishy-washy a little too late. But in her concluding paragraph, Judge Wood suggests the UFC consider filing a new claim based on the AG's reversal after the original lawsuit was filed - which couldn't be considered in the current case - and to also consider filing in state court.

If you've got to get knocked down, there's nothing like a hand to help you up, right? New York may have won this battle, but the war is far from over. This tees up the New York legislature as the next immediate battleground to pull the state out of the MMA stone ages, while the UFC and their legal team will surely consider their options for appeal or starting from scratch with a new lawsuit.

Follow Paul at @MMAanalytics.

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