Florida officials and Tribe win Round 1 in legal fight over sports betting

U.S. District Court Judge Allen Winsor ruled this week that West Flagler Associates, which owns Magic City Casino in Miami and Bonita Springs Poker Room, did not have standing to sue over sports betting because it could not show that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ actions harmed the parimutuels.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Marcellus Osceola, Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, pose for a photo at a signing ceremony on Friday, April 23, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Marcellus Osceola, Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, pose for a photo at a signing ceremony on Friday, April 23, 2021. [ GOV. RON DESANTIS | The Daytona Beach News-Journal ]
Published Oct. 19, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe over the gaming compact signed in April this year, giving the state an early victory in what is the first of three legal battles for sports betting in Florida.

U.S. District Court Judge Allen Winsor ruled Monday that West Flagler Associates, which owns Magic City Casino in Miami and Bonita Springs Poker Room, did not have standing to sue the state because it could not show that the governor’s actions harmed the parimutuels.

Under the deal signed by DeSantis and approved by the Florida Legislature, anyone in Florida over age 21 can start placing and collecting online wagers on sporting events “via the internet [or] web application” from anywhere in Florida. All transactions would go through servers located on tribal land in a “hub and spoke” model intended to bypass both federal and state law.The law implementing the compact became effective immediately and it was deemed approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior in August, after the agency said in a letter it would neither approve nor disapprove it.

West Flagler Associates, which is owned by the Havenick family, argued that the new compact not only hurts their business but also violates federal law. The parimutuels asked the court in July to halt the implementation of the portion of the compact relating to sports betting because it authorizes internet gaming outside of tribal land in violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and unfairly harms them in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But Winsor rejected their claims.

Judge: No state role

He said that for DeSantis’ signing of the compact to have an impact on the parimutuels, his “official action must relate to enforcement—not enactment.” Winsor also said the state, specifically the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, does not have the authority to enforce the conditions of the compact.

“The Parimutuels point to nothing that the Secretary does under the Compact that enables the Tribe to offer online sports-betting,” Winsor concluded.

He also said that DeSantis and DBPR do not implement the compact because that is the role of the tribe, a sovereign entity under state and federal law.”As the Parimutuels acknowledge, the implementing law became effective immediately upon the Governor’s approval, and the Florida Secretary of State already submitted it for federal approval,’’ Winsor wrote. “Now that the die is cast, it is not clear what the Governor has to do with ‘implementing’ the sports betting provisions. So there is no indication that an injunction against the Governor would ‘significantly increase the likelihood’ that the Parimutuels would obtain relief, ‘whether directly or indirectly’.”

Winsor also ruled that the remedy the parimutuels seek — ordering DeSantis to halt the compact — is also flawed.

“But even assuming a declaration against the Governor would bind the State, it would not bind the Tribe, which would have no obligation to recognize any declaration’s legal effect,’’ he wrote.

Winsor, who was appointed to the federal court bench in 2019 by former President Donald Trump, previously served on the Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, where he was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2016. Between 2013 and 2016, Winsor served as the state solicitor general under former Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Gary Bitner, a spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe, called the ruling “an important first legal victory for the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe and we look forward to future legal decisions in our favor.”

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Two more pending lawsuits

The parimutuels still have another avenue to challenge the deal with the goal of blocking the launch of online sports betting in Florida.

In September, West Flagler Associates filed a lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, asking that court to enjoin the sports-betting portion of the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. West Flagler alleges that the 30-year agreement with the state illegally violates federal law, specifically the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires that any state-sanctioned gambling occur on tribal land.

Also suing in federal court in the District of Columbia to stop the expansion of gambling in Florida are business leaders Armando Codina and Norman Braman and the No Casinos organization. Codina and Braman backed No Casinos in its efforts to pass Amendment 3 to the Florida Constitution in 2018, which requires that any expansion of gambling get statewide voter approval.

The District Court for the District of Columbia has scheduled a Nov. 5 hearing date to hear oral arguments on both the West Flagler and No Casinos cases, although the cases are not consolidated.

Daniel Wallach, a Florida-based gaming and sports betting attorney, said the pending lawsuit in District Court is more significant than the case dismissed in the Northern District of Florida on Monday because it challenges the Department of Interior.

“The proper defendant is and has always been the Department of the Interior,’’ he said. “The reason why D.C. is so important is that the federal courts in Washington, D.C. have recognized the standing of competitors to challenge federal agency approvals of tribal gaming compacts.”

Wallach said he expects an expedited ruling based on whether the gambling activity takes place outside tribal land.

Although the Florida statute sets an Oct. 15 launch date for tribal sports betting , the Seminole Tribe has indicated it will not implement online sports betting until sometime later this year. West Flagler said the tribe has indicated in conversations with it that the launch date is Nov. 15.

Tribe invests $10 million to oppose petition drive

The Tribe is also facing a threat from a constitutional amendment for the 2022 ballot proposed by two of the nation’s top sports betting platforms. FanDuel and DraftKings have spent $20 million on the petition drive that asks voters to authorize online sports betting at all Florida parimutuels, professional sports stadiums, and anywhere else in the state using a mobile sports betting platform.

The Seminole Tribe, which backed the gambling initiative supported by No Casinos in 2018, last month put $10 million into a political committee, Standing up for Florida, to counter the effort. It begun running cable television and internet ads urging people to “watch out for out of state gambling companies spending tens of millions to turn our state into another Las Vegas.” The ad urges people to “say no to gambling petitions.”