Disney seeks to toss district lawsuit in DeSantis feud

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) -Walt Disney Co asked a Florida judge on Friday to dismiss a lawsuit by a state oversight board as part of the entertainment giant’s effort to pursue its case against Governor Ron DeSantis, the latest development in a year-long feud.

Disney urged Judge Margaret Schreiber in Orlando to dismiss a lawsuit filed in May by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which controls development around the company’s theme parks.

At the end of an hour-long hearing, Schreiber asked both sides to submit by Wednesday proposed orders to resolve Disney’s request, but she did not say when she would rule.

The district lawsuit seeks to void “backroom deals” favorable to Disney that the district alleges were struck with a prior district board and in violation of state law.

At the same time, Disney is pursuing its own lawsuit filed in April against the governor in federal court that claims DeSantis “weaponized” state government against the company for attacking a law central to the governor’s agenda.

The skirmish began last year after Disney criticized a Florida law banning classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity with younger children. DeSantis, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has repeatedly attacked “woke Disney” in public remarks.

DeSantis rallied lawmakers to pass bills that reconstituted the district, formerly known as Reedy Creek Improvement District, and transfer power over the board to the governor from Disney. Lawmakers also retroactively invalidated agreements that Disney reached with the prior board on the eve of it being brought under DeSantis’s control.

Disney’s attorney argued in court that the district’s lawsuit should be dismissed because it was no longer needed since the company’s agreements with the prior board were nullified by the state.

Dismissing the district lawsuit would allow the company to focus on its federal case, which claims DeSantis violated the company’s constitutional right to free speech. Disney wants a federal court order preventing the state from enforcing the laws directed at the company. DeSantis has been dismissive of Disney’s lawsuit and said the company has no right to operate without proper district government oversight or have special privileges.

An attorney for oversight district argued that the district’s case should proceed because it differed from the broad-ranging federal case and was narrowly focused on the validity of several agreements struck this year.

“If Disney’s contracts are void, nearly all of Disney’s claims in the federal case disappear,” the district said in a court filing.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, editing by Deepa Babington and David Gregorio)