Originally published at: https://discgolf.ultiworld.com/2023/05/13/in-wild-week-of-legal-wins-did-everyone-lose/
The American legal system isn’t known for its efficiency. But after living through this week’s day-by-day drama of Natalie Ryan’s case against the DGPT and PDGA, perhaps we can all appreciate the downsides of needing to rush a complex case to completion.
As things “finally” stand on Saturday, the DGPT can claim victory and exclude Ryan from further competing in the OTB Open in Stockton, California – after they were required to let her participate in Friday’s round one. Leading up to the Friday night ruling from the Ninth Circuit, there was a different legal narrative each day. And keep in mind that absolutely nothing about this case is even close to final: All of the legal drama was centered around preliminary motions. An entire case may still unfold.
And while the DPGT might feel positive now, it seems like all parties involved had, at the very least partial, losses throughout the week.
Even those who may disagree with the substance of Ryan’s case should feel human sympathy for the way the week unfolded for Natalie Ryan. She had to compete on Friday with the knowledge that her preliminary victory might be reversed on appeal – and it was. Her performance was impressive, especially given the circumstances, finishing fifth on the day and only one stroke back of the lead.
And then came the almost-unthinkable: After her strong Friday performance, the DGPT announced she would be barred from continuing on Saturday. It must have been an emotional rollercoaster. It’s also unclear what it means for Ryan’s eligibility at additional events this season.
Ryan was represented pro bono by Brian Sciacca, who was up against larger law firms, staffed with multiple lawyers, defending the DGPT and PDGA. It was a bit David vs. Goliath. Ryan and Sciacca aptly identified California law, and the OTB Open in Stockton, as being a favorable time and location to pursue Ryan’s claims – many observers have noted her strong substantive argument based on California law. But the decision by Sciacca to delay the arguments for a few months after his initial filing – whether tactical or simply due to the pro bono nature of the representation – was, in hindsight, a big gamble. It led to a frantic week of ups and downs, and ultimately to the odd result whereby Ryan was removed mid-tournament. The tactical approach was high risk and high reward, and landed somewhere in-between.
While not minimizing the emotional swings this weekend, in the big picture Ryan may still have won more than she lost this week. More on that below.
As the week went on, separation between the PDGA and the DGPT began to emerge. For the PDGA, their appeals by week’s end focused on the work of their Medical Subcommittee and their related report.
Here’s the problem: If the earlier District Court’s order is a preview of future analysis to come on their policy and report, then the PDGA is in trouble. The most forceful aspect of the District Court judge’s decision was contrasting the PDGA’s policy with those enacted by other leagues. One even wonders if the District Court’s jurisdictional analysis errors resulted from wanting to get their displeasure at this policy into the record regardless.
Ultiworld Disc Golf’s Upshot podcast noted many of these problems back in late 2022 when the policy was enacted. Regardless of whether the PDGA’s policy is right or wrong on this issue – which was ripe for litigation – they needed to have an impeccable process in the factual record. It seems as though they don’t. PDGA is likely to get more favorable judges if the claims are litigated in other states outside of California, but defending their record will be a long term challenge in many venues. California is not the only state that will apply scrutiny to the PDGA’s process.
The DGPT may have waited a bit long to bring in true legal experts to their defense team, but it was better late than never: DGPT ultimately won the stay at the Ninth Circuit by finding the right jurisdictional argument. The number of procedural arguments and deficiencies alleged by DGPT gave them decent odds that one would stick, and they found a good one.
But this is a short-term DGPT victory, since Ryan’s case can, and probably will, proceed in other venues. The jurisdictional argument is unlikely to work again, and it certainly won’t work forever. Plus, as we saw in the District Court’s opinion, DGPT will be tied very closely to the PDGA in the case, since the DGPT adopted the PDGA’s eligibility policy. That means the DGPT legal team will find themselves defending the PDGA’s policy.
Additionally, while the DGPT complained about the delay between Ryan’s initial filing and the recent rush, they could have established the jurisdictional record earlier too, thereby avoiding the initial District Court ruling against them. It’s possible they waited to raise jurisdiction until the time of maximum impact; if so, that was a gamble.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was forced to make a decision in 24 hours, and their two page ruling reflects that – pretty confusing. The District Court’s order was stayed with respect to the DGPT, but not with respect to the PDGA, notwithstanding the fact that the District Court did very little to distinguish between those two parties. Multiple observers (ourselves included) were scratching our heads trying to interpret exactly what the Ninth Circuit meant and intended.
The District Court got its jurisdictional analysis wrong and created unnecessary confusion during the week. The corporate, tax, and drivers license documents filed by the DGPT should have been enough for the District Court to get to the right answer. The District Court even expressed its skepticism as to the jurisdictional issue – a sign that they probably should have waited, if necessary, to get it right before issuing the initial order.