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Ron DeSantis tries to dismiss lawsuit by Venezuelan migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard, calls complaint a ‘shotgun pleading’

Ron DeSantis holds his hand to his face.

FILE – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a question during a press conference on Sept. 7, 2022, in Miami, Fla. The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have delivered migrants on planes and buses to Washington, D.C., New York City and even Martha’s Vineyard, but they may just be getting started. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that the lawsuit against him and state officials and contractors over the so-called “migrant flights” to Martha’s Vineyard is nothing more than a “shotgun pleading” and should be dismissed.

DeSantis, a Republican, had arranged for dozens of migrants from Venezuela to travel from Texas, where they entered the U.S., to Martha’s Vineyard, a largely liberal island enclave in Massachusetts. According to the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, a Texas woman named Perla Huerta lured the migrants under pretenses to take the flights without telling them where they were going and promising items such as shoes, gift cards, and free lodging, as well as access to jobs and legal support upon landing.

A federal class action suit on behalf of some migrants was filed by advocacy group Alianza Americas in Massachusetts days later, shortly after the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in Texas announced an investigation into the transport. In addition to DeSantis, the lawsuit named Huerta, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Secretary Jared W. Purdue, Florida Public Safety Czar Lawrence Keefe, DeSantis’ Chief of Staff James Uthmeier, and charter flight company Vertol Systems as defendants.

In a motion to dismiss filed Tuesday, DeSantis says that the complaint is a “shotgun pleading,” a type of filing that judges have indicated is “abusive” and “drafted to advance a political narrative,” as well as being a “waste of judicial resources.”

“Shotgun pleading is prohibited,” the filing says, arguing that the complaint doesn’t specify when an individual is sued in their official capacity and does not articulate whether the plaintiffs seek “monetary or equitable” relief for each claim.

The filing also says that the case should have been filed in Florida.

“To the extent there are any allegations of misconduct by State Defendants, the alleged acts all took place in Texas or Florida and not ‘in this commonwealth,'” the filing says (citations omitted). “The alleged fraudulent statements were made in Texas, and the alleged discrimination is either the policy itself, which was adopted in Florida or the selection of migrants, which took place in Texas […] Any ‘contact’ by State Defendants with Massachusetts would have been the last step, not the first.”

The motion also says that proceeding with the case in Massachusetts would also “take away” from the state officials’ “official state duties and involve unnecessary expense to Florida taxpayers.”

The motion says that the plaintiffs’ complaint didn’t meet the requirements for a fraud claim.

“There is nothing illegal about voluntarily transporting migrants to other parts of the United States after they have been processed by federal authorities,” the motion says (citations omitted). “States controlled by both major political parties do it. As have municipalities and private groups. Indeed, DHS said just last week that these States, localities, and private groups are all ‘key partners’ to DHS’s mission for ‘facilitating the onward movement of those conditionally released from DHS custody.'”

The motion also says that state officials never spoke directly to the migrants and could not have defrauded them. The facts supporting the plaintiffs’ fraud claims against the state, the motion says, are “virtually nonexistent.”

“There are no specific, non-conclusory allegations supporting the notion that [DeSantis] ordered, orchestrated, engineered, or took part in a plan to deceive migrants to travel to Massachusetts,” the filing says. “At most, the Amended Complaint is little more ‘than a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion of’ illegal conduct.”

DeSantis argues that the plaintiffs didn’t present credible evidence of a conspiracy to engage in fraud, noting that they acknowledge that Florida’s “Official Consent to Transport” forms showed “an intention to transport only willing migrants.”

“Despite all this, Plaintiffs would have the Court believe that the Florida Legislature, the Governor, his staff, the Secretary, and their contractors were instead secretly engaged in a vast conspiracy to lie to migrants to get them to leave San Antonio,” the pleading says.”

The motion says that the plaintiffs knew where they were headed — and that their complaint acknowledges this.

“Perhaps most damning, Plaintiffs’ allegations also reveal that Huerta told Plaintiffs where the planes were going. She told Jesus Doe’ that she could get him on a plane to Washington, Oregon, or Massachusetts,’ and she told Yanet Doe ‘that they would likely go to Washington, D.C., or another ‘sanctuary state[.].’ And the consent forms signed by each migrant plainly state that they were being transported to their “final destination” of ‘Massachusetts.’

The motion also denies the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims.

“There are no plausible factual allegations that there ever was a plan or agreement involving the officials to intentionally discriminate against them because of their race or national origin,” the motion to dismiss says (citations omitted). “Nor are there any plausible allegations that the officials knew the essential nature and general scope of a plan to discriminate. And there are no plausible allegations that officials were ‘motivated by some discriminatory animus’ rather than by a neutral purpose.”

The motion also says the migrants’ emotional distress claims are not legally supportable.

“[T]he type of emotions allegedly endured — e.g., fear, distress, anxiety, confusion, lack of sleep — are emotions that ordinary people endure,” the motion says (citations omitted), later adding: “Plaintiffs do not plausibly allege ongoing severe distress, and the duration of the distress they did allegedly feel — one week — reinforces that it is not severe enough to be actionable.”

Huerta, the contractor, filed a separate motion to dismiss the claims against her, calling the complaint “a political polemic dressed as a legal document.”

“The Individual Plaintiffs’ chief complaint is that they landed in Martha’s Vineyard, rather than a “city,” and that their flight was used by a politician they disagree with,” Huertas’ motion also says, noting that the plaintiffs “never allege that they did not receive” housing, employment, and legal assistance. “Dislike of a politician, and free food, hotel rooms, and transportation are unusual facts on which to build claims for constitutional deprivation.”

Huertas’ motion to dismiss also argues that the federal court in Massachusetts does not have jurisdiction over her, as she recently lived in Florida and worked in San Antonio, Texas. She argues that she could not have denied the migrants their constitutional rights because she is “clearly a private party, not a government official.”

Huerta’s motion also seems to imply that even if she wasn’t honest with the migrants about where they were headed, it didn’t matter.

“Individual Plaintiffs agreed to go despite not knowing their exact destination – proving conclusively that the ultimate destination was immaterial to them and they did not rely on any alleged representations about their destination,” Huerta’s motion to dismiss says.

Vertol Systems, a Florida-based charter flight company, also filed its motion to dismiss, echoing many of Huerta’s arguments.

The defendants collectively filed a separate motion to move the case to Florida, saying the action “should have been brought” in the Sunshine State from the start.

“That is because the Northern District of Florida is where ‘a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred,'” the venue motion says (citations omitted). “Plaintiffs challenge a Florida law, passed by the Florida Legislature, and signed by Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis, who is a Defendant […] all the alleged conduct for a majority of the Defendants occurred exclusively in the Northern District of Florida[.]”

Lawyers for Alianza Americas said that DeSantis’ connection to Massachusetts is clear.

“The bottom line is that Governor DeSantis doesn’t want to be hauled into a Massachusetts court, but he surely hauled distressed migrants to Martha’s Vineyard without compunction,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, told Law&Crime in an email. “Governor DeSantis essentially pretends that Perla Huerta, a former spy, was running around plotting on her own. But she was not alone.”

Espinoza-Madrigal says lawyers for the plaintiffs do not expect the defendants’ legal arguments to hold up.

“It is not surprising that Governor DeSantis and his co-defendants are throwing up every procedural argument they can think of, in a desperate attempt to avoid facing the music for this callous political stunt,” he said in the email. “As outlined in our complaint, the defendants hatched and executed a shameful plan to induce vulnerable Latinx immigrants in Texas to board privately chartered flights through false promises of jobs, shelter, and immigration assistance. We are confident in our case and look forward to proceeding towards trial. Using human beings as political props is both morally repugnant and illegal. We will see Governor DeSantis and his co-defendants in court.”

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