Appeals court rules in favor of Tampa attorney in years-long fight with Scientology

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar. [Times files]
Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar. [Times files]
Published March 3, 2016

A state appeals court has dealt the Church of Scientology a blow in its efforts to collect a $1.07 million judgment from its long-time nemesis, Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously ruled Wednesday that a Pinellas County court had no jurisdiction to enforce a 2004 agreement between the church and Dandar. Though Dandar was found to have violated its terms, the appellate judges said the proper steps were never taken to formalize the agreement.

Their ruling, if it stands, would wipe out a court order that since 2014 has allowed the church to garnishee the bank account of Dandar's law firm.

"It's a great day and I feel vindicated," Dandar said Wednesday. "A million-dollar judgment has a very bad effect on anybody, and it had a terrible effect on my entire family. So we just pick up the pieces now and get back to where we were in 2009, when this thing was filed."

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Neither the church nor its attorney in the matter, F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater, responded to requests for comment.

The ruling was just the latest turn in a long tale that begins with the case of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 at age 36 after 17 days in the care of church staffers in Clearwater. Dandar represented McPherson's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the church.

As part of a 2004 settlement, Dandar signed an agreement with the church that later became the center of a dispute. The church said Dandar agreed to never sue Scientology again; Dandar said he agreed to no such thing.

The church cited the agreement in 2009 when Dandar decided to represent a Virginia woman in another wrongful-death suit against Scientology. That suit eventually was dismissed, but the issue of Dandar violating the 2004 agreement developed into a legal battle all its own.

In March 2014, senior Pinellas circuit judge Crockett Farnell agreed with church lawyers that Dandar had breached the McPherson settlement. He ruled Dandar must repay Scientology for its legal fees and other costs, a bill totaling $1,068,156.50.

Dandar said Wednesday the church froze his firm's account as well as that of a client for whom he had secured a judgment.

Asked how he functioned under those restrictions, he said: "With extreme difficulty because they were watching my every move. They monitored all the cases I had filed anywhere to see if I won, if I collected any money. They took my deposition. They took my daughter's deposition. They took my wife's deposition, my brother's deposition."

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Still, he said, the church had not collected any money from him because he filed objections with the court and the matter was never set for trial.

Though pleased with the ruling, Dandar acknowledged the dispute was probably not over. "They can appeal it to the Supreme Court. They can do all kinds of things," he said of the church. … "They will try to figure out a way to continue this somehow."