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Man's day in court cut short

Bryan McMonagle thought he got a raw deal from his former employer. He turned to small claims court for help.

On Monday, McMonagle showed up 20 minutes early for his final hearing. He wore his best outfit: a pair of black, knee-length shorts and a white, button-down collar shirt, both purchased at the Salvation Army. He came well-prepared: He had studied the facts, read the law, anticipated his ex-employer's defense.

"I just wanted to bring it before the court and have my say," McMonagle said.

He never got the chance. McMonagle had been prompt and prepared.

What he lacked was a pair of long pants.

A bailiff, enforcing a courthouse policy, turned McMonagle away from a judge's chambers for being improperly attired.

The hearing went on anyway. County Judge William Sestak ruled against McMonagle, having never heard what the 32-year-old, formerly homeless man had to say.

Now, McMonagle thinks he got a raw deal from Sestak.

"Justice is blind," he complained afterward, "but it can see my attire."

It didn't have to be that way.

Individual judges have discretion about what constitutes proper attire in their courtrooms. "It varies from courtroom to courtroom," said Ron Stuart, spokesman for the 6th Judicial Circuit, which comprises both Pasco and Pinellas counties.

For Sestak, the issue is clear.

"People need to be properly dressed," the judge said. "Society has gotten too lax. It's not about showing respect for me, individually. It's about showing respect for the office."

He's not alone.

In the West Pasco Judicial Center, the dress code is posted outside every courtroom.

"Proper dress is required or you may be held in contempt or refused admittance (no shorts, tank tops, undershirts, etc.)," the signs read.

Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray also strictly enforces the policy.

"It is a rule," said Bray, the administrative judge for Pasco. "It is not a matter of any particular person, it's about showing respect to the court and the business conducted there. I think everybody enforces it . . .

"It's not that uncommon for people to borrow clothes to go to court in."

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, said a penniless man in Salvation Army shorts is entitled to the same access in court as a man in an Armani suit.

"This is kind of absurd," Simon said. "What, the courts are open to all, but only if you can afford long pants?"

Simon said the ACLU would consider helping McMonagle seek a rehearing.

"The doors to justice have to be opened to everybody," Simon said. "I think at some point, the courts in America have to make a choice between the essential elements of justice and the rules of decorum. It seems to me that justice is always more important."

McMonagle's hearing Monday was scheduled for 10 a.m. He arrived at 9:40 a.m., then checked in at Judge Sestak's chambers. Sestak's bailiff, Bill Fiorentino, saw the shorts and told McMonagle he couldn't attend the hearing unless he found some long pants.

McMonagle replied that he didn't own any long pants. Fiorentino relayed the information to Sestak. When the case was called, McMonagle walked toward the judge's chambers. Fiorentino barred his entrance.

Later, Sestak was not sympathetic.

"Go get a pair of long blues from the Sheriff's Office," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "Go to Wal-Mart. Go to Salvation Army. How much is a pair of pants at Salvation Army? A dollar?"

McMonagle told the Times that a few weeks ago he had three pairs of jeans _ all purchased at the Salvation Army. But he cut off the legs on all three pairs with the arrival of summer. McMonagle said he had been homeless at the end of last year, living in a tent behind the Port Richey Wal-Mart. He recently moved into a home in New Port Richey, doing chores for a couple in exchange for free rent.

He lives in a converted porch, with a concrete floor and no air-conditioning. The dry goods he gets from the Salvation Army _ grits, pasta, popcorn _ he stores in half-gallon milk jugs.

After high school, he worked as an ice cream man in Georgia and Texas, he said. Then he attended a community college in New York for two years, he said, until his grants ran out last summer. He has been on the skids ever since, he said.

He worked for six days as a telemarketer for OMV Marketing Consultants, based in Pinellas Park, he said. They fired him, and then, he alleges, shorted him on his paycheck.

When McMonagle filed suit in February, he listed his assets as $131.90 in a bank account, $5.62 in his pocket, and a car worth $1,775. Sestak ruled he was indigent and waived all court fees. McMonagle said he had no money to his name Monday morning and couldn't have run out to buy pants.

In court Monday, Sestak ruled that McMonagle had no case because he wasn't technically employed by OMV. McMonagle said afterward that he could have proved otherwise, given a chance to address the court.

Losing the case isn't what bothers him. "I feel like I was discriminated against because of my social status," he said. "I'm poor."

Bryan McMonagle, 32, above, steps over the mattress he sleeps on in a nonairconditioned covered porch in New Port Richey. At left: Signs outside Pasco courtrooms warn that "proper dress is required," and include shorts, tank tops and undershirts among clothing that is prohibited.