After a setback, Disney has changed its legal strategy in Florida, where the company is battling Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies in court for control over Disney World’s growth plan.
Disney is not, however, heeding Mr. DeSantis’s recent call to “drop the lawsuit.” Instead, on Friday it pushed back on two fronts — narrowing the scope of its federal case to focus on the charge that Mr. DeSantis and his allies violated its First Amendment rights, and threatening new suits to gain access to public records.
Disney and Mr. DeSantis, who is running for president, have been sparring for more than a year over a special tax district that encompasses Disney World. Angered over Disney’s criticism of a Florida education law, Mr. DeSantis took over the tax district, appointing a new board and ending the company’s long-held ability to self-govern its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county. Before the takeover took effect, however, Disney signed contracts to lock in development plans — worth some $17 billion over the next decade.
An effort by Mr. DeSantis and his allies to void the contracts resulted in dueling lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and the tax district in federal court and the new appointees returning fire in state court.
The state judge, Margaret Schreiber, dealt Disney an early setback in July. She denied its motion to dismiss the countersuit ruling that Disney could not shut down the state case and focus on the overlapping federal one. She also refused to put the state case on hold until the federal lawsuit was decided.
On Aug. 14, Mr. DeSantis told CNBC that Disney should drop the federal lawsuit. “They’re going to lose,” he said. “Let’s move forward.”
Rather than retreating, Disney is changing gears — essentially conceding that it will have to simultaneously wage two court battles.
On Friday, the company filed a motion to amend its multipart federal complaint, which is pending before Judge Allen Winsor in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee. The amendment would remove parts of the complaint specifically related to the validity of the development contracts — which is what the state case covers — while leaving intact Disney’s core accusation that Mr. DeSantis and his allies violated the company’s First Amendment rights with “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
Mr. DeSantis moved to take over the Disney World tax district after Disney criticized the Parental Rights in Education law, which opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay” and which prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for students through the third grade. The DeSantis administration later expanded the ban through Grade 12.
Disney’s motion said it was seeking to amend the federal complaint “in order to spare the inefficiency of litigating contract validity simultaneously in two forums.”
Later on Friday, Judge Winsor denied Disney’s motion to amend the complaint, citing a procedural flaw. Rules require the company to first confer with the defendants about an amendment, the judge said. If there is an objection, Disney may then refile the motion. If there is no objection, no motion is necessary for the amendment.
Disney also disclosed on Friday that Mr. DeSantis and six state entities had not complied with public records requests made in May by the company’s lawyers as part of the discovery process in the court cases. This week, Disney sent letters to the governor’s office and the other state entities, saying that the company would sue each under Florida’s public records act unless the requested materials were made available by Sept. 6.
“It has now been nearly four months since our request, and we have yet to receive any of the requested records or any substantive response asserting valid exemptions,” Adam Losey, an Orlando lawyer working for Disney, wrote in the letters, one of which was viewed by The New York Times.
Disney has requested “all documents and communications, including but not limited to text messages, Signal messages and WhatsApp messages on any devices” with the keywords “Disney” or “mouse,” among many others, according to the letter.
A spokesman for the governor’s office had no immediate comment.