OCEAN CITY — A federal judge late last week approved a final scheduling order with an expedited start date for the trial in the suit involving the alleged rules violation in the 2016 White Marlin Open (WMO), assuring the proceedings will be concluded before the 2017 event.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett had before him a proposed scheduling order that included a start date no earlier than Sept. 18, 2017 for the trial in the federal suit aimed at resolving the alleged rules violation of the winner of the white marlin category in the 2016 WMO and the distribution of the $2.8 million in prize money. The proposed scheduling order included the September 2017 trial date, which would have left the case lingering over the 2017 WMO.
However, last Friday, Bennett issued an “etched in stone” scheduling order with a start date for the trial set for May 22, 2017. Essentially, the judge altered the scheduling order in part to ensure the legal proceedings would be resolved well before the 2017 WMO one way or the other. The trial has now been laid in for four days beginning May 22.
In late August, WMO officials discovered a potential rules violation that could disqualify the winner in the white marlin division, a 76.5-pounder caught by angler Phillip Heasley on the Kallianassa out of Naples, Fla. Heasley’s 76.5-pound white marlin was awarded a tournament-record $2.8 million in prize money because the Kallianassa was entered across the board in all added entry levels and the fact it was lone qualifier.
However, about two weeks after the 2016 tournament, WMO officials announced potential rules violations regarding the timing of the catch and that Heasley and three other individuals on the Kallianassa including the captain and two mates were deceptive on their answers to some of the questions during the requisite post-tournament polygraph examinations for the winners in major categories.
In August, WMO officials through their attorneys filed a Complaint for Interpleader in Worcester County Circuit Court, asking a judge to intercede and decide first if there were rules violations committed by Heasley and the Kallianassa crew, and secondly, if there were violations, how best should the $2.8 million in prize money be distributed to the winners in other categories.
In September, Heasley and the Kallianassa filed a motion to move the case from Worcester County Circuit Court to U.S. District Court, citing jurisdictional issues. Heasley is a Florida resident and argued in the motion the case should more appropriately be heard in federal court. In addition, Heasley argued the parties in the case should be realigned. Heasley argued, effectively as it turned out, that the WMO should be listed as the plaintiff, along with the 13 other division winners who stand to earn a share of his $2.8 million prize, and Heasley and the Kallianassa should be listed as the lone defendants. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett agreed and the case is now captioned “White Marlin Open Inc. et al v. Philip G. Heasley.” A separate motion to “strike all references to polygraphs from the Complaint” was rejected by the judge.
It is no minor distinction as the realignment of the parties now keeps the case in U.S. District Court. In an official order issued last Tuesday, the federal judge denied a motion by the second-place tuna winner to remand the case back to Worcester County Circuit Court, effectively keeping it in U.S. District Court. The same ruling also ordered the WMO to deposit the $2.8 million in question into the U.S. District Court Registry until the case is resolved, which now appears at least 10 months away.
Boiled down to its simplest terms, the Interpleader asserts Heasley, Captain David Morris and mates Kyle Bohannon and Joseph Hagen, the only four people on the “Kallianassa” on Aug. 9 when the winning white was caught, each failed the requisite polygraph tests after administrators determined they were deceptive in their answers to some questions regarding the time of the catch. Per tournament rules, any place-winner with prize money of $50,000 or more is required to submit to polygraph examinations on the Saturday after the tournament has concluded.
More specifically, the Interpleader asserts the time of the catch of the winning 76.5-pound white marlin on Tuesday, Aug. 9, was altered on the official catch report submitted at the scale that afternoon. The official catch report appears to show an initial time of 8:15 a.m. was entered, but then altered to 9:05 a.m. Per tournament rules, which are clearly posted and carefully reviewed during the pre-tournament captain’s meeting, participating boats cannot put lines in the water before 8:30 a.m. on each of the five official fishing days.