A state appeals court in Miami, Fla., on Sept. 8 ordered a lower court to reconsider a lawsuit in which technology entrepreneur and Thoroughbred owner Halsey Minor challenged John Brunetti’s ownership of Hialeah Park.
A judge in Miami-Dade Circuit Court had dismissed the lawsuit in 2009 with prejudice. That court cited a 1986 ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal, which said Brunetti was responsible for real estate taxes at Hialeah Park and in effect was the owner even though his company leased the property from the city of Hialeah.
But 13 months later the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the circuit court’s decision and suggested that “this issue would be better addressed on a summary judgment motion or at a trial, not on a motion to dismiss.”
In its three-page ruling, the appeals court said it determined that the lower court had “considered factual material beyond the facts alleged within the four corners of the complaint.” The appeals court said material “beyond the four corners” involved the question of whether the city is the equitable owner of Hialeah Park.
The latest court ruling revives Minor’s efforts to change the ownership of the historic track.
Minor and his Save Hialeah Racing Inc. sued Brunetti, his operating companies, and the city of Hialeah in February 2009 after talks with Brunetti about a possible sale of track broke down.
On Sept. 9 Minor said he would consider being part of a group to buy Hialeah Park if a court rules that Brunetti is not the legal owner.
Brunetti said: “This is one those things with lawyers. From what I read in the (Sept. 8) document, we will have to re-file our materials. I am confident that we will succeed.”
Stephen Darmody, a Miami attorney who represents Minor, said he hopes the circuit court will begin discovery motions that could lead to a trial.
“This (appeals court ruling) is a victory,” he said. “We are back to where we were a year ago.”
Minor’s suit maintains that the city of Hialeah owns Hialeah Park because in 2004 it transferred a then-owned city property, the track, to Brunetti without required voter approval. In 1978, Brunetti took out a 30-year mortgage from the city to purchase the track and agreed to make payments while operating it. The city transferred the deed to Brunetti in 2004.
Minor’s suit asks the circuit court to “impose a constructive trust on the subject property in favor of the City of Hialeah and for the use and benefit of its citizens.” Minor has said that if the court rules that the city owns the track, he would be interested in being part of a group that would bid to lease and operate it.
When Minor offered to buy Hialeah Park, it had not held racing since its 2001 Thoroughbred meet.
Hialeah re-opened on Nov. 28, 2009 with a 40-day Quarter Horse meet. It plans to hold a 23-day Quarter Horse meet from Dec. 3, 2010 through Jan. 23, 2011.
Brunetti also hopes to build a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines. But he has delayed plans for construction, partly because Calder Casino & Race Course and two other Miami-area pari-mutuels have filed lawsuits that challenge a provision of a 2010 Florida law that allows Hialeah Park to apply for a casino license.
Brunetti on Sept. 9 declined to comment on Minor.
Minor said: “John has not restored Hialeah Park. He just slabbed it back last year. He wants a casino.”
He added that he thinks Brunetti “has been a terrible steward” for Hialeah Park.
“If we win in court, a first strategy would be to have anyone but John Brunetti own Hialeah Park,” Minor said. “I am furious about the way in which he was allowed to take ownership. But if he can prove that he owns the property, I say ‘God bless him.’ ”
Minor became a multimillionaire through investments that included CNET Networks.
Since 2008, he has been involved in legal disputes with Sotheby’s over the ownership of several classic paintings.
On Sept. 2, his company, Minor Family Hotels, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his stalled Landmark Hotel project in Charlottesville, Va. Minor says he has not been able to get funding for the project since last year, when its primary lender, Silverton Bank of Atlanta, Ga., was closed by regulators and placed under control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.