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Saturday, Mar 25, 2017
Editorials

In court with Scientology

The Church of Scientology is practicing its aggressive form of litigation management against a longtime legal protagonist who has twice represented clients whose relatives died while in the care of church members. Lawyers for the church are using a secret settlement agreement in a state case to try to remove Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar from a federal case they claim has no merit. They persuaded a state judge to order Dandar off the federal case. Trouble is, the federal case is a matter over which the state judge has no say. The nastiness between the church and Dandar goes back 15 years when he first began representing the estate of Lisa McPherson. The notorious case, settled in 2004, involved a woman who died after spending 17 days in the church's care.
Currently, Dandar is representing the estate of Kyle Thomas Brennan, who killed himself in 2007 while visiting his father, a church member. Brennan's mother, the administrator of his estate, claims church members deprived her son of prescribed psychotropic medication and negligently left a gun in his reach. According to the church, Dandar violated the terms of the McPherson settlement when he took on Brennan's mother as a client. Pinellas-Pasco Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach agreed with the church and ordered Dandar off the Brennan case. But when Dandar tried to withdraw, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, who is overseeing the federal case against the church, denied his request. His written order says neither Dandar nor his client wanted the lawyer removed. The immediate consequence of Dandar's withdrawal would be to terminate the case, which, of course, is what the church wants. Subsequently, and in an inexplicably closed hearing from which Beach tossed a St. Petersburg Times reporter, the judge cited Dandar for contempt and sanctioned him for not obeying the order to withdraw. In other words, he punished him because of Merryday's order. Beach then fined Dandar $50,000 plus $1,000 for every day he stays on the case - with all of the money to go to Scientology. And the judge apparently threatened to revoke Dandar's law license, something he has no power to do. It is difficult to come up with a charitable explanation for Beach's actions. First off, he closed the hearing in which he sanctioned Dandar. The settlement agreement may have been confidential, but there is no reason to close a hearing to enforce the agreement. Moreover, even if there were reasons to hold the hearing behind closed doors, when it became a disciplinary action, it should not have proceeded under seal. Second, the fines appear to be a way to coerce Merryday to yield, which he should not. Beach has construed the McPherson agreement to mean Dandar, who was not only the lawyer in the case but also a party, would never sue Scientology again. Indeed, Dandar may have agreed not to sue the organization personally, but that should not have restricted his ability to practice law. An agreement to "disengage" from one case is not a promise not to sue in another. Dandar has appealed Beach's sanctions to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland. The judges there need to provide the clarity and transparency that Beach has failed to bring to the case.
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