In the ongoing Empire Wine-New York State Liquor Authority saga, an acting state supreme court justice has ruled that the Colonie wine retailer can question NYSLA employees regarding its enforcement of the Alcohol Beverage Control (“ABC”) Law. Justice Gerald Connolly ordered NYSLA to comply with subpoenas issued by the retailer during the course of a protracted license revocation proceeding. As you may recall, NYSLA issued Empire a citation in August 2014 for “improperly” shipping wine to customers in 16 other states. This proceeding, which is an administrative process, has made several detours into state court and even into the legislature.
At this point, a quick timeline of this epic may be helpful. I've differentiated between administrative activity (italics) and judicial activity (regular type). Legislative activity appears in bold face.
- August 1, 2014: NYSLA issues citation (notice of proceeding).
- September 22, 2014: Empire files an Article 78 lawsuit in the Albany County Supreme Court alleging that NYSLA exceeded its authority and asking that the court stop the agency from penalizing the retailer.
- September 26, 2014: Empire sends a letter to NYSLA requesting documents pursuant to the New York Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”).
- November 2, 2014: NYSLA’s Records Access Officer denies Empire more than half of the documents it requested.
- November 11, 2014: Empire formally appeals the denials.
- November 18, 2014: Meanwhile, in the Article 78 proceeding, the court concludes that Empire’s lawsuit is premature and instructs the parties to proceed with the administrative process.
- December 5, 2014: NYSLA’s Appeals Officer upholds the majority of the FOIL request denials.
- December 23, 2014: Empire sues NYSLA a second time, asking the court to compel the agency to comply with its FOIL document request. Empire says it needs these documents in order to defend itself in the administrative proceeding.
- January 23, 2015: At the administrative hearing, two NYSLA prosecutors refuse to allow two subpoenaed employees to be questioned, notwithstanding the fact that the employees are physically present.
- February 4, 2015: Empire sues NYSLA again, this time to compel compliance with the subpoena.
- March 9, 2015: New York State Assembly Member Phil Steck (D-Colonie) introduces legislation that would prohibit NYSLA from penalizing licensees for violating the laws of other states, unless the conduct in question (1) is a violation of the New York alcoholic beverage control law or (2) has resulted in a criminal conviction in another state.
- Late March 2015: In response to freedom of information law requests, Empire receives copies of emails from NYSLA to Missouri and North Carolina officials demonstrating that NYSLA pressed these officials to investigate and issue cease and desist letters to Empire. These emails, which showed that NYSLA's general counsel initiated contact with Missouri and North Carolina authorities, contradicted NYSLA Chairman Dennis Rosen's statement that the agency's actions were prompted by complaints from other states and that the agency was "not looking for trouble."
- May 19, 2015: The court issues an order compelling compliance with Empire’s subpoenas.
In the subpoena litigation, Justice Connolly concluded that NYSLA had “failed to demonstrate a clear legal right to have the subpoenas at issue quashed at this juncture,” meaning the agency didn’t give sufficient legal justification for silencing the subpoenaed employees. And so the story continues...