Appellees File New Arguments In Florida Sports Betting Lawsuit

A Florida sports betting lawsuit is nearing a crucial date and the parties to the litigation are making their final attempts at swaying the court their way. With oral arguments in West Flagler Associates v. Haaland set for Dec. 14 in Washington, DC, the entities seeking action from the appeals court have levied new arguments.

Both the Seminole Tribe and the US Dept. of the Interior (DOI) filed replies to an earlier filing by the lawsuit’s plaintiff. If the briefs represent the substance of their oral arguments next month, those proceedings might not do much to strengthen their cases.

Florida sports betting lawsuit update

Two of the latest filings in West Flagler appeared on the docket on Monday. Both represented responses from the Seminole Tribe and the DOI to West Flagler’s October brief. While the positions of the Seminoles and Interior are different in this matter, they primarily seek the same thing; a reversal of the lower court’s ruling.

In November 2021, a federal district court decided the amended compact between Florida and the Tribe that temporarily allowed for Hard Rock Sportsbook to take bets online in the state was illegal. More specifically, the court ruled that the main defendant – Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland – erred when she approved the compact amendment.

That led to Hard Rock suspending accepting sports wagers online in Florida. That status quo remains today. The appeals court overturning the district court’s ruling could remove that impediment. The DOI and Seminole Tribe take different paths to that same end in their latest filings.

What the Seminole Tribe has to say now

The Seminoles’ reply is a mixture of novel and rehearsed arguments. On an overarching level, the Tribe continues to take issue with the denial of its request to join the complaint as a party to the litigation. It argues that its exclusion is not only improper but renders the lawsuit illegitimate.

“West Flagler and Interior make the incredible argument that the Tribe is not a required party under Rule 19(a), even though the District Court easily found the Tribe to be required because it is a party to the 2021 Compact at issue in this case.”

“West Flagler brought this suit against Interior as a collateral attack to stop the Tribe from exercising its negotiated-for rights under the 2021 Compact. West Flagler only did this because it knew it could not directly sue the State or Tribe due to their immunity.”

In addition, the Seminoles assert that Interior’s handling of the case so far has left much to be desired. For that reason, the Court cannot accept Interior as a “stand-in” for the Tribe’s interest in the dispute.

“Interior has since continuosuly failed to make important arguments on the merits, including failing to argue that its interpretation of IGRA should receive deference.”

The Court also has a reply from the DOI to consider as it moves toward Dec. 14’s hearing.

Interior makes another case for IGRA compliance

A primary issue in the trial court’s finding was the interpretation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This reply by the DOI again attempts to demonstrate why the tenets of the compact amendment between Florida and the Seminole Tribe do not violate IGRA.

To make that case, Interior first states that IGRA does not preclude gaming compacts from addressing gambling that does not take place on tribal lands.

“While the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”) does not provide federal authorization for gaming outside Indian lands, it is a separate question whether an IGRA compact between a state and a tribe may acknowledge, rather than authorize, a state’s decision to allow such gaming.”

The DOI continues by arguing that the lower court’s holding that the compact violates IGRA is errant. In Interior’s view, the compact does not take a stance on the legality of online sports betting in Florida outside Seminole lands.

“Indeed, unlike the sentence regarding the Tribe’s activities, it does not even declare that those wagers are authorized. It only describes how the State and Tribe will treat them. Thus, far from unambiguously declaring that IGRA itself authorizes the wagers, the Compact is silent on the issue.”

If these briefs represent the meat of the forthcoming oral arguments from the appellees, Dec. 14 could be another good day for West Flagler Associates.

Why these arguments might fall short

To date, this litigation has been characterized by poor showings by the federal government defendant and the Seminole Tribe. That trend might continue.

The biggest problem with the Seminole arguments is that they read as somewhat contradictory. The brief simultaneously attempts to contend that Interior has botched the case and the district court made the wrong decision based on the case’s merits at the same time.

While either one of those arguments could make a generic basis for an appeal, it’s difficult for them to coexist in the same litigation. Asserting that the trial court erred assumes it had all the correct facts in the appropriate context before it. In the same vein, arguing that the DOI is at fault for the incorrect result conveys that if not for that misconduct, the lower court would have made a different decision.

Yet, Interior’s arguments might be stranger. They treat online sports bets via Hard Rock Sportsbook in Florida like something that organically exists on its own and the compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe as merely a method of transporting them into a regulated system that also just somehow magically exists on its own independent of the compact.

The most significant flaw is that the brief argues the compact pertains to activity that IGRA does and does not encompass, then the brief fails to specify which elements of sports betting in Florida are and are not within the scope of IGRA.

Both the DOI and the Seminoles are banking on the appeals court to accept these lines of reasoning currently. On Dec. 14, the court will see if they intend to stick to these arguments.

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