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Court Rejects, on Procedural Grounds, Challenge to Florida Repeal of Disney's Special Government District


From Tuesday's decision by Judge Cecilia Altonaga in Foronda v. DeSantis (S.D. Fla.) (for more on the substantive First Amendment question, see these posts):

Plaintiffs are Florida residents and taxpayers. They challenge the validity of a bill recently passed by the Florida legislature and signed into law, Senate Bill 4-C, that will allegedly "eliminat[e] a special legal status that allows Walt Disney World … to operate as an independent government[,]" known as the "Reedy Creek Improvement District[,]" in the Orlando area. {Although Plaintiffs filed suit in this District, the conduct at issue and the parties are more closely connected to the Orlando area, and the Complaint's caption treats this as a suit in the "Miami Division" of the "Middle District of Florida[.]" At the risk of stating the obvious, no such division exists, nor is the undersigned a judge in the Middle District.}

In total, Plaintiffs assert four claims against three Defendants, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, and Florida Director of the Department of Revenue Jim Zingale. In Count I, Plaintiffs allege that Senate Bill 4-C violates Florida's Reedy Creek Improvement Act and "contractual obligations" the state owes to Floridians (although the Complaint includes no attached contract). Count II alleges that the bill violates Florida Statute 213.015. Count III seeks relief under section 1983 for violations of "Disney's First Amendment rights[.]" …

At least three jurisdictional defects compel dismissal of the Complaint.

First, the Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' state-law claims. "State officials are immune from suit in federal court for claims arising under state law because 'it is difficult to think of a greater intrusion on state sovereignty than when a federal court instructs state officials on how to conform their conduct to state law.'" Alabama v. PCI Gaming Auth. (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman (1984)). The Eleventh Amendment bars such suits whether the plaintiff seeks damages or equitable relief, and whether or not the state officials' alleged conduct violates the U.S. Constitution in addition to violating state law. This limitation on federal judicial authority is jurisdictional.

Second, the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' sole remaining claim for violation of Disney's First Amendment rights. "[A] party generally may assert only his or her own rights and cannot raise the claims of third parties not before the court." A few narrow exceptions to this rule exist. To have third-party standing, (1) a plaintiff must "have suffered an 'injury in fact,' giving him or her a 'sufficiently concrete interest' in the outcome of the issue in dispute;" (2) the plaintiff must have a close relationship with the party whose right is being asserted; and (3) some obstacle prevents the third party's ability to protect its own rights. The "most important justification for third-party standing" is "the potential dilution of the third party's rights" resulting from the third party's inability to assert its own rights….

Plaintiffs do not plausibly allege they have suffered any concrete injury as a result of the alleged violation of Disney's First Amendment rights, and nothing in the Complaint shows Plaintiffs have a close relationship with Disney. Even more critically, Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that Disney faces any hindrance in asserting its own First Amendment rights. Far from it: Plaintiffs expressly allege that they "expect Disney and the State of Florida to litigate this matter for a significant period of time[.]" …

Another notable exception to the general principle that a party may not sue for violations of others' constitutional rights applies in the First Amendment context. But that exception relaxes traditional standing requirements only when a litigant asserts a claim of First Amendment overbreadth. Plaintiffs assert no such claim here. They instead allege what is in essence a First Amendment retaliation claim on Disney's behalf. And First Amendment retaliation claims do not qualify for watered-down third-party standing standards.

Third, and finally, none of Plaintiffs' claims is ripe.Senate Bill 4-C does not take effect until July 1, 2022.When aplaintiff files "a preenforcement, constitutional challenge to a state statute, the injury requirement may be satisfied by establishing a realistic danger of sustaining direct injury as a result of the statute's operation or enforcement."The plaintiffcan satisfy this requirementifsheis(1)"threatenedwithapplicationofthestatute;(2)applicationislikely;or(3) there is a credible threat of application."

Plaintiffs do not meet this standard. The challenged law does not apply to them, they do not allege direct harm as a result of the challenged law, and they do not plausibly allege any credible threat of direct harm in the future. Plaintiffs' theory of standing is that the elimination of the Reedy Creek Improvement District might result in financial harm to Plaintiffs by virtue of a tax increase that has not yet been enacted. That indirect and highly speculative alleged injury cannot support federal jurisdiction. Senate Bill 4-C itself will not raise Plaintiffs' taxes. Again—it is worth emphasizing—the bill does not apply to Plaintiffs at all….

Plaintiffs' lawyer, William Sanchez, is running for the U.S. Senate. Thanks to the Media Law Resource Center MediaLawDaily for the pointer.