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Disney asks judge to toss lawsuit from DeSantis-appointed board

The entertainment giant’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from a new oversight board uses the state’s own legislation against it.

ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) — Disney urged a Florida judge on Tuesday to throw out a lawsuit filed by a state-backed oversight board seeking to invalidate an agreement that gave the company control of the special district where its theme park is located.

Pointing to a new state law that voids any previous contracts approved by the theme park and the former Reedy Creek Development District, now renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Disney maintains that the “court accordingly cannot provide meaningful relief to either party.”

“A ruling in CFTOD’s favor would be pointless, and a ruling in Disney’s favor would be meaningless,” the motion to dismiss states. “Under the Florida Constitution, trial courts have no power to issue opinions that are at best advisory and lack any real-world effect on the parties’ rights.”

Earlier this month, the Florida Legislature passed a land use regulation bill that included an amendment that specifically targets an agreement made between Disney and the outgoing board that ceded control of most operations in the 25,000-acre district to the theme park, effectively neutering the new oversight board appointed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

“An independent special district is precluded from complying with the terms of any development agreement … executed within three months preceding the effective date of a law modifying the manner of selecting members of the governing body of the independent special district,” reads the text of the bill, known as SB 1604.

Disney contends SB 1604 makes the oversight board’s lawsuit against the agreement moot.

“Disney seeks a declaration that the state’s action is unlawful because it impairs valid and enforceable contracts,” the company's attorney Adam Losey wrote. “In its state suit, CFTOD seeks essentially the opposite: a declaration that the contracts are void, unenforceable, and invalid.”

The 27-page filing also references Disney’s federal lawsuit against the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and asked the judge to alternately declare a stay on the state litigation.

“Florida law recognizes a robust principle of priority, under which state proceedings should be stayed pending an earlier-filed federal court proceeding,” the motion states.

The row between DeSantis and the corporate giant began with Disney’s opposition to the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, known more commonly as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity topics from kindergarten through third grade.

Disney heavily criticized the bill, which was signed into law by DeSantis in March 2022, and vowed to end any political contributions to state lawmakers.

DeSantis immediately responded, attacking Disney as a “woke corporation” and directing the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature to remove Disney’s self-governing status that was in place for more than 50 years.

In February, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature renamed the district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and the governor handpicked a new board of supervisors.

But before the previous board members left, they passed an agreement with Disney that allowed the company to control the district, effectively neutering the governor’s new board.

Clearly incensed, DeSantis announced a series of proposals to wrest control of the district from Disney, including placing tolls on roads within the district in addition to new taxes and state inspections of the theme park’s monorail.

At one point, noting that the state has several miles of undeveloped land adjacent to the theme park, the governor bounced around the idea of building a prison abutting the district.

Disney responded with a federal lawsuit, accusing DeSantis and the board members of “targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”

“Disney regrets that it has come to this, but having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials,” the complaint states.

Days after Disney filed its lawsuit, the new board countered with its own nearly 200-page lawsuit, filed in Orange County Circuit Court, seeking to invalidate the earlier agreement between Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

In what has become a familiar pattern, Disney seems to have anticipated the state’s every move. Its federal lawsuit specifically mentioned SB 1604 and now the company’s attorneys are using its language against the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

“Dismissal is required here,” Disney’s motion states. “This is an action by a state board raising questions about the validity of contracts that are already void and unenforceable by unequivocal legislative fiat. There is no order this court can issue that will affect that result.”

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