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Disney drops most claims in Florida special district lawsuit against Ron DeSantis

The Walt Disney Co. has dropped a lawsuit against Ron DeSantis that will likely decide the fate of his authority to control development around his sprawling theme park, choosing to focus solely on First Amendment claims.

In a complaint filed Thursday, Disney amended its lawsuit to drop the contracts clause, takings clause and due process violations. It will focus on allegations in the federal court case that Florida’s governor retaliated against the company in violation of his free speech rights for opposing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

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Disney sued DeSantis in April in federal court in Florida, alleging that its hand-picked oversight board illegally overturned an agreement that allegedly transferred certain powers from the company’s now-disbanded special district back to Disney.

The development contracts in question were quietly signed by the previous board of supervisors on Feb. 8, the day before the state legislature. passed a bill under DeSantis’ direction reshaping the leadership structure of Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). Under the new bill, the governor was granted the authority to appoint all members of the special fiscal district’s five-member governing body. The measure was intended to retaliate against the company, with the aim of dissuading the company from speaking out on social issues.

After DeSantis moved to dismiss the lawsuit in June, Disney responded by asking it to drop its non-First Amendment claims because “the validity of Disney’s contract-based claims is being actively litigated in the court action pending state”. The company explained: “In order to save the inefficiency of litigating the validity of the contract simultaneously in two forums, Disney’s Second Amended Complaint removes all four counts based on the contract in this action. The remaining claim: challenging the law which reconstitutes the RCID with the election of the governor [Central Florida Tourism Oversight District] Board of Supervisors as a weapon of government retaliation in violation of Disney’s First Amendment rights, can be adjudicated here regardless of how the state court rules on Disney’s contract claims.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor on Sept. 1 denied the company’s request, saying he could do so only “after consulting with the defendants and otherwise complying with the local rules”. The filing of the amended complaint Thursday indicates that DeSantis allowed Disney to drop its contract claims without prejudice, meaning they can be filed again, before the judge ruled on the motion to dismiss.

Disney is pursuing claims based on the contract in a case brought by CFTOD in state court. They were filed in response to the lawsuit that accused the company of illegally stripping the board of its authority.

In a statement, Disney said, “We will continue to fight vigorously to defend these contracts, because these agreements will determine whether or not Disney can invest billions of dollars and bring thousands of new jobs to Florida.”

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