Disney ends legal fight with state and district

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Walt Disney World entrance in 2010. photo By Jrobertiko (Denis Adriana Macias) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By: Jim Saunders with News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — After reaching a development deal, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts on Thursday ended a legal fight about whether Florida unconstitutionally retaliated against the company because of opposition to a controversial education law.

Disney attorneys filed a document at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the company agreed to dismiss the case. It cited a new development agreement between Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which largely governs an area that includes Disney properties.

The district Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved the development agreement, which includes Disney investing up to $17 billion, according to a summary released by the district.

Disney and the district also reached a legal settlement in March that ended a related case in Orange County Circuit Court. In early April, Disney asked for an extension in submitting briefs to the federal appeals court to “facilitate” negotiations that were contemplated when the Orange County case was settled.

The district summary said the development agreement is for 15 years, “solidifying a long-term partnership” between the company and the district. Along with Disney’s investment, the deal includes such things as the company creating a local-business hiring program and providing at least $10 million for “attainable” housing projects, according to the summary.

The lawsuits, which drew national attention, were rooted in a decision last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature to replace the former Reedy Creek Improvement District with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

The decades-old Reedy Creek district was closely aligned with Disney, while DeSantis appointed the new district’s board. Also, a former DeSantis aide, Stephanie Kopelousos, was named this year as the new district’s administrator.

The federal lawsuit alleged the state violated First Amendment rights by retaliating against the company after Disney officials in 2022 opposed a controversial law that restricted instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

The federal lawsuit named as defendants DeSantis, Florida Department of Commerce Secretary J. Alex Kelly, and the district.

But U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in January dismissed the lawsuit, saying Disney did not have legal standing to pursue the case against DeSantis and Kelly and rejecting claims against the district.

In dismissing the claims against the district, Winsor cited legal precedents preventing First Amendment retaliation claims against “facially constitutional” laws. He said the disputed laws about the district do not mention Disney and that their effects would go beyond Disney.

“The laws are directed at a special development district in which Disney operates,” Winsor wrote. “But as Disney acknowledges, it is not the district’s only landowner and other landowners within the district are affected by the same laws.”

Disney quickly appealed to the Atlanta-based appeals court, but the case drew little activity amid the negotiations.

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