TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A Leon County circuit judge on Friday refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that entities backed by the Seminole Tribe are illegally interfering with workers trying to gather signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in North Florida.
Florida Voters in Charge, the political committee behind the proposed constitutional amendment, is racing to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to the state to make it onto the 2022 ballot.
A lawsuit filed by the committee accused businesses, individuals and a committee linked to the Seminoles of trying to "sabotage" the petition drive, in part by paying people to stop gathering signatures.
Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey earlier this week rejected the plaintiffs' emergency motion for a temporary injunction to halt alleged: "tortious interference" related to the attempts to block the proposal from going before voters.
During a nearly 90-minute hearing Friday, she rejected a request by the defendants to dismiss the case.
Defendants in the lawsuit include Marc Jacoby; Kara Owens; Cornerstone Solutions Florida LLC; Let the Voters Decide, LLC; and Standing Up for Florida, Inc., a political committee backed by the Seminoles.
Attorney William Shepherd, who represents the defendants, argued that the lawsuit should be scrapped because, among other things, the plaintiffs are seeking to wrongfully impose a "salary cap and wage freeze" on their own signature gatherers amid "the most competitive job market" in recent history.
"Florida and federal law both prohibit blanket hiring restrictions. That's exactly what the plaintiffs are asking the court to do, to make a hiring restriction that would say, Burger King, you can't hire employees from McDonald's. UPS, you can't hire employees from FedEx. That's not the law in Florida and that's not the law here," Shepherd, a West Palm Beach lawyer with the firm Holland & Knight, said.
Shepherd also argued that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to attach the contracts and identify the names of petition circulators who allegedly have been "poached" by the defendants or their associates.
One of the "crux issues" of a free market is a "free labor market," he said.
"What plaintiffs are trying to do is to tether employees who work for them to be bound by them and to them until the plaintiffs say they can leave, and that's prohibited," Shepherd argued. "Florida is proud of its free markets for labor, and employees have the ability to take a better job that will pay them more money or they have the ability to bargain that right away, in a written restrictive covenant."
But Jim McKee, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called Shepherd's arguments "absolutely untrue."
"The idea that what we're trying to do here is restrict lawful competition is just downright absurd," McKee said.
The lawsuit alleges "parties acting on behalf of the Seminoles have engaged in concerted and aggressive efforts to harass and intimidate individuals who are exercising their legal right to obtain signatures necessary to place a citizen initiative on the Florida 2022 ballot."
The legal complaint includes details of how signature gatherers working on the initiative were offered money to stop collecting petitions and leave the state until Feb. 1, the deadline for signatures to be submitted.
Workers are being paid "not to actually do any work for the defendants but simply agree to stop working for us in exchange for a payoff," McKee told Dempsey.
The payments "far exceed what the market would dictate" for signature gatherers, who are asked to prove that they've been working on the ballot initiative to get the cash, he argued.
According to the lawsuit, people associated with the defendants have grabbed clipboards away from signature gatherers, followed workers to their hotel rooms, and screamed at voters to keep them from signing petitions.
The battle over the proposed constitutional amendment pits casino behemoth Las Vegas Sands Corp. against the Seminole Tribe, whose Tampa casino is one of the nation's most lucrative.
Sands has poured at least $27 million into Florida Voters in Charge, according to the Division of Elections website.
The committee had spent nearly $27.5 million on the petition drive as of Nov. 30, the website shows.
The rival Standing up for Florida committee, which has received at least $10 million from the tribe, has paid Cornerstone more than $5.5 million since Oct. 1, according to the state elections website.
The Florida Voters in Charge initiative would allow voters to decide whether to allow pari-mutuel operators in North Florida to add casino games to their operations.
The measure, if approved, would open the door to Las Vegas-style casinos along the Interstate 10 corridor in North Florida and is geared toward a facility in the Jacksonville area.
While Florida Voters in Charge must submit 891,589 valid signatures to the state by Feb. 1, it needs to finish collecting the signatures by the end of December because of the time needed for county elections supervisors to process them.
Shepherd on Friday pressed McKee to provide more details about the names of the workers and their contracts with the plaintiffs.
"He has to tell us who the specific people are. Was it Joe Smith who was sent out of town? What's his name? What was his contract? What was his relationship with the plaintiff?" he asked.
Dempsey is slated to hold a hearing Tuesday on a motion for an injunction.
During Friday's hearing, she gave the plaintiffs three hours to provide the names of the workers and any contracts to Shepherd and ordered the defendants to provide a list of witnesses for Tuesday's hearing by noon Monday.
Shepherd, a former statewide prosecutor, also questioned whether it is illegal to pay workers to sit on the sidelines.
"Frankly, judge, I don't know that Florida law prohibits that," he told Dempsey.
And Shepherd argued that the defendants' actions are protected by the First Amendment.
"My client has the right to hire people. My client has the right to hire people to amplify its voice and education in the community where they think that voters are being misled," Shepherd said.
But McKee disputed Shepherd's claims.
"The First Amendment does not protect intentional tortious acts, such as those engaged in by the defendants, and, in fact, it's the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs that are being infringed on here," he said.
(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)
for more features.