TAMPA — In 2003 and again this spring, a Bartow lawyer told a federal judge that people are torturing her through a microchip illegally placed in her head.
The personal challenges of civil attorney Janice L. Jennings intruded upon two of her clients' lawsuits last month after she alleged that opposing counsel John W. Campbell had used special technology to make her miss a court date.
"You're saying something is implanted in your brain?" U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara asked at a May 16 Tampa hearing, flabbergasted.
"In the area of my left ear," Jennings responded.
"And Mr. Campbell has been using that device to somehow subject you to torture?"
"I believe so, your honor."
He called her accusation "bizarre" and then a second federal judge called it "peculiar." The Florida Bar opened an inquiry, and a nonprofit group that helps lawyers cope with mental illness reached out to Jennings, 55.
The claim, however tragic, was not new. For at least 13 years, people in powerful positions in Florida have been exposed to the unusual perceptions of a woman whose Bar credentials give her special access inside heavily secured courthouses.
A month after the Bar learned of Jennings' latest incident, its consumer website lists her as a "member in good standing," eligible to practice in federal and state courts, and she continues to represent two women with job discrimination cases against the Polk County Commission.
"She is afforded a certain amount of due process before we can affect her ability to practice," said Arne Vanstrum, associate director of lawyer regulation.
The Bar is the public's safety net. It vets complaints about lawyers, who next face discipline from the Florida Supreme Court. Complaints that don't lead to discipline are purged after a year. Jennings was reprimanded twice in the mid 1990s on matters relating to the way she handled cases and billed clients.
It's unclear whether the Bar got involved in 2001 when she lost her staff attorney job in Florida's Office of Attorney General. Court records indicate she was fired because she refused a mental health examination and a mandatory referral to the employee assistance program.
The office was headed by Bob Butterworth, a former sheriff and judge who years later became secretary of the Department of Children and Families. He says he doesn't remember Jennings.
"It's a shame," he said Friday when told of her conduct. "You really have to be concerned about the people she's representing."
Jennings did not respond to several messages the Tampa Bay Times left on her cellphone, office phone and email over the past few weeks, nor to a message left with her mother.
Alisa Cotton, the Polk County human resources employee whose case brought Jennings to court last month, would not comment when contacted.
The second Polk client, Annie Allison, signed an affidavit acknowledging she had read court papers that raised questions about Jennings' competency. The affidavit, filed last week, was required by U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven before the case could proceed.
"Ms. Jennings is my lawyer," it stated. "I want her to continue to represent me in this case."
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Jennings typically sues public entities such as school districts and local governments, meaning the public pays the fees of the lawyers who fight the claims.
Allison's case against the Polk County Commission has been in federal court for two years.
Campbell, a private Tampa attorney, represents Polk County.
His firm's bill so far in the Allison case: at least $165,000.
In February, he advised Jennings that he would not allow the delays in the Cotton case that occurred in the Allison case.
In court filings, he has described Jennings' legal writing as "incomprehensible." He tells of frequent failed attempts to schedule case management conferences. He writes that he has difficulty reaching her.
Recently, he sought the judge's help in getting Jennings to make and keep appointments to take sworn testimony, known as depositions. That led to the scheduling of the May 16 hearing.
But just before the hearing, Jennings filed a court paper in the Cotton case. She called Campbell a "bully," "denigrating" and "disrespectful."
Her rambling, nine-page paper contains more references to microchips than to Cotton.
"While I am the object of this type of electronic torture and all that comes with it, made possible by illegally implanted microchips, because I stood up for the federally protected civil rights against a former employer who is a former sheriff, I have not, until encountering Campbell, had this level of harm meted out against me for advocating my client's civil rights claims," she wrote.
She asked that Campbell cease and desist using microchips.
She also predicted, "I believe the light will shine brightly on John W. Campbell."
Her words concerned Campbell enough that he relocated a May 14 deposition from a court reporter's office to the secured Polk County Courthouse.
"Why didn't you just have it at the original site?" Judge Lazzara asked two days later.
"Metal detector," Campbell answered in front of Jennings.
"I'm sorry?" the judge asked.
"The metal detector she must pass through to enter the courthouse," Campbell said.
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Authorities have been investigating curious claims from Jennings since her days at the Office of Attorney General.
Butterworth's office hired her in 1995 and fired her in 2001. She graduated from the Florida State University law school in 1984.
Four years into the state job, she sued Butterworth for not considering her to be personnel director. (That still doesn't help him remember her. He guesses he has been sued 1,400 times.) Jennings, who is African-American, claimed discrimination.
The court file includes a January 2001 letter she wrote to U.S. District Judge William Stafford in Tallahassee, alleging that someone was remotely starting and stopping her car.
In February 2001, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into her reports that someone was entering her home at night and injecting her with hypodermic needles.
The agency found no evidence, and the next month, Jennings lost her $59,159-a-year state job.
She still had a lawsuit pending against Butterworth. And she was her own lawyer. This put Butterworth defense attorney Laura Beth Faragasso in the odd position of questioning a courtroom adversary's competency.
Faragasso wrote that Jennings "may not currently be able to distinguish fiction from reality."
That was 13 years ago.
Weighing whether to order a mental health exam, Judge Stafford asked Jennings' opinion. "Now, what responsibility," he asked, "would the court have to a client where the court suspects that the counsel is not competent to provide representation?"
"The first thing that comes to my mind," Jennings said, "is appointment of counsel."
But this was a private lawsuit, the judge said. Was she suggesting he appoint a lawyer for her?
Jennings said she thought the question was hypothetical.
"It was," Stafford said. "Let's go back and keep it hypothetical."
He didn't order an exam.
In time, he dismissed her lawsuit against Butterworth.
After all was decided, in 2003, Jennings wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul in Gainesville, asking for a federal investigation of the microchip.
"I am put in an altered state of consciousness or go to sleep against my will and am injected with God knows what," she wrote. "I am raped and other bad things are done to me."
Magistrate Judge William C. Sherrill Jr. responded for Judge Paul, saying it wasn't in the purview of the court to order law enforcement investigations.
He took time to explain the separation of powers.
He told the clerk to return any future letters sent by Jennings.
Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]