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Scientology foe gets little comfort from federal judge

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar says the Church of Scientology is illegally trying to restrict his practice, violating his civil rights.

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar says the Church of Scientology is illegally trying to restrict his practice, violating his civil rights.

TAMPA — The long fight between Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar and the Church of Scientology didn't end Monday, but a federal judge offered scant support to Dandar as he tries to escape more than $1 million in sanctions by a state judge.

The church argues that Dandar violated a decade-old agreement never to sue Scientology again. Dandar said he never agreed to that and the church is illegally trying to restrict his practice, violating his civil rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington appeared reluctant to interfere in the state judicial process.

"Even if I think that decision was incorrect, it's not my place to do anything about it," Covington said during a 70-minute hearing.

At issue before Covington was a federal civil rights lawsuit that Dandar filed against the church in 2012 as he tried to fend off a $1 million judgment the church won against him in a Pinellas County Circuit Court in March.

On Monday, Dandar and lawyers for the church sparred over federal case law as they argued whether Covington should intervene in the state case.

Dandar said the church was part of a conspiracy to deprive him of his civil rights.

"They're still after me," he said, adding that he's had to turn down many Scientology-related cases in recent years. "I can't afford for them to come after me again."

F. Wallace Pope Jr., a Clearwater lawyer representing the church, responded that there wasn't any conspiracy to ruin Dandar. "There was never an intention to do anything but enforce an agreement to force Mr. Dandar to leave the church alone," he said.

Dandar's history of fighting Scientology dates to 1997, when he filed a wrongful-death suit against the church on behalf of a Texas relative of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.

That lawsuit gained national attention. In court, Dandar often stood alone against teams of church lawyers.

The case took a bitter turn when Dandar succeeded in naming church leader David Miscavige as a co-defendant.

After seven years of legal wrangling, Pinellas Circuit Judge Robert Beach ordered the parties to settle the case in 2004. Terms were confidential.

In 2009, Dandar took on the church again. He filed another wrongful-death suit, this one on behalf of Victoria Britton of Virginia, whose son, Kyle Brennan, had died in 2007 of a gunshot wound while visiting his father, a Scientologist who then lived in Clearwater. Police ruled the death a suicide.

Dandar sued in federal court, naming as defendants the church, the father and two other Scientologists. He argued Brennan's father, Tom Brennan, had confiscated his son's antidepressant medication a day before the shooting because of Scientology's opposition to psychiatry and psychotropic drugs.

Church lawyers promptly went to Judge Beach, saying Dandar had breached the McPherson settlement by filing another lawsuit against Scientology.

Beach agreed and ordered Dandar to pull out of the Brennan case. That prompted a protracted fight in federal court and an appeal that went in the church's favor. Meanwhile, Beach imposed fines against Dandar.

Beach has since recused himself, but the issue remains in the Pinellas courts before Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell. Dandar faces the prospect of having to pay $1.07 million in attorney fees racked up by the church, court costs and fines originally imposed by Beach.

Dandar hasn't paid a dime yet. Although he has lost some appeals in state courts, one final appeal is pending.

Kyle Brennan's mother said she is grateful Dandar took her case.

"It's difficult for me to understand why the legal system would take it to such an extreme where they would want to destroy someone's livelihood," Britton said. "He was really just trying to help a distraught mother who loves her son."

The church didn't respond to requests for comment.

Judge Covington said she would issue her order soon.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Scientology foe gets little comfort from federal judge 05/19/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2014 11:40pm]
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