Federal judge tells Pinellas judge to back off in Scientology lawsuit

Published Sept. 29, 2010

TAMPA — A federal judge has ordered a Pinellas judge and the Church of Scientology to halt their efforts to severely punish Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer who is taking the church to court for the second time in his career.

The action Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday involves Pinellas Judge Robert Beach, who has said he intends to impose a $130,000 fine on Dandar and possibly suspend his license to practice law.

The reason: Dandar allegedly reneged on a legal promise never to challenge the church again after he sued Scientology and won a settlement in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.

But in a stinging 29-page order, Merryday questioned the "stunning severity" of the fine and said Beach overstepped his authority. He "permanently enjoined" Beach, the church or anyone else from pursuing the matter, saying they couldn't even hold another hearing on it.

The order frees Dandar to continue representing the estate of Kyle T. Brennan in a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the church's Clearwater entity, the Flag Service Organization. The lawsuit contends that Brennan's apparent suicide was the result of improper actions by his Scientologist father and two other church members. It alleges the father, Thomas Brennan, hid his son's antidepression prescription with the help and advice of Denise Gentile, the sister of Scientology's worldwide leader David Miscavige. A trial is scheduled for December.

The unusual situation puts two noted local judges at odds.

Beach could not be reached Tuesday for comment, but has said he believes that only a state appeals court, not a federal judge, can overturn his decisions regarding Dandar. It was unclear whether a Friday scheduled hearing before Beach will take place as planned.

Scientology lawyer F. Wallace Pope entered a courthouse conference room after Tuesday's hearing to discuss the result with church officials and other lawyers. He could not be reached later for comment.

Said Dandar: "I'm just very happy I can now concentrate on getting to trial." He said the prospect of having to pay a large fine and quit practicing law had been "a huge elephant" weighing on him and his family. He told Merryday he would have to file for bankruptcy if Beach's penalties were imposed.

The dispute began when Dandar sued the church in February 2009. Four months later, the church argued that Dandar's representation violated the terms of its 2004 settlement with the family of McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.

The church contends the McPherson settlement barred Dandar from taking part in any future legal action against Scientology. Dandar strongly disagrees.

Beach sided with the church and ordered Dandar to petition Merryday to remove himself from the Brennan case. Dandar did so, but went before Merryday grudgingly, saying he was under duress. He argued that his client had tried to find other lawyers to replace him, but that no one else wanted to take on Scientology, a claim the church disputes.

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Merryday declined to release Dandar from the case, which prompted Beach to react with the fine and other potential sanctions earlier this month.

In his order Tuesday, Merryday said Beach forced his hand.

On one hand, he said, there was Dandar facing the "calamitous consequences" imposed by Beach. On the other was Brennan's family, whose chances of continuing their case would suffer if he allowed Dandar to be released.

He said that if Beach's wishes were allowed to stand, the Brennan family would be harmed from a case they had nothing to do with and a settlement agreement they had no part in.

He said his only course was to "act in defense of the (federal) court's jurisdiction" over the cases before it.

Referring to Beach, he wrote: "A judge should not undertake, directly or indirectly, overtly or through a surrogate, to compel an act by another judge, especially in a different jurisdiction."