An appeals court in Atlanta has given the Church of Scientology a leg up in its effort to remove local attorney Ken Dandar from a federal wrongful death case in Tampa.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals this week reversed a decision by federal Judge Steven Merryday, who in September refused to release Dandar from his role in a wrongful death case against the Church of Scientology.
He made that ruling despite the order of another judge in a Pinellas Circuit case stating that Dandar had to go.
Merryday issued an order that effectively halted the Pinellas case and enjoined Pinellas Judge Robert Beach or the church from taking any further action against Dandar. Merryday said he was acting to protect his jurisdiction over the case in his court: the estate of Kyle Brennan vs. Scientology.
The federal judge went too far, the appeals court said.
Its ruling on Thursday was the latest chapter in a seesawing legal drama that has pitted two prominent local judges against each other.
Merryday has been a federal judge since 1992, presiding over such cases as Pinellas County's school desegregation plan and the explosives trial of former University of South Florida student Youssef Megahed. Beach, a former Pinellas chief judge, retired in 1992 after a long career but still hears cases as a senior judge.
Beach's attorney, Raleigh W. Greene III, said Friday that the judge "considered this to be a matter of some significance" and felt vindicated after the appeals court ruling. Merryday does not comment on ongoing matters in his court, said his assistant, Becky Kline.
The controversy began in 2009 when Dandar sued the church in federal court on behalf of Brennan's estate. The lawsuit blames Brennan's apparent suicide on improper actions by local Scientologists, including Brennan's father and the sister of Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The church contends Dandar agreed never to sue Scientology again as part of a 2004 settlement in the Pinellas wrongful death case of Lisa McPherson, who died after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.
An unusual chain of events followed.
Beach ruled in the church's favor and ordered Dandar to remove himself from the Brennan case, presided over by Merryday.
Dandar grudgingly attempted to comply, but Merryday declined to release him from the case.
Beach reacted with fines and other potential sanctions against Dandar.
Merryday reacted, saying in part that Brennan's family would be harmed by Beach's order because they would be hard-pressed to find another lawyer willing to take the case. He ordered that no further action be taken to impede Dandar.
Beach removed himself from the Pinellas case, and the church appealed Merryday's order.
The Atlanta-based court cited the federal Anti-Injunction Act, saying that federal courts can halt the progress of an action in state court only if "three narrow exceptions" are met. Ensuring that one party has a lawyer is not one of them, the court said in part.
Dandar could not be reached Friday for comment.
Church attorney F. Wallace Pope said it appears Beach's original order to have Dandar removed from the Brennan case will stand, after some related matters are resolved. "He's got an enforceable state order against him that will at some point in time be enforced," Pope said.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at [email protected]