It's judge vs. judge in battle over Scientology lawyer

Published Oct. 9, 2010

Usually it's the lawyers who tussle back and forth in court. But a dispute involving the Church of Scientology has two of the area's most notable judges locking horns, each saying the other stepped outside his jurisdiction.

Pinellas Judge Robert E. Beach has filed a motion in federal court in Tampa saying U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday erred last week when he "permanently enjoined" Beach from carrying out sanctions against lawyer Ken Dandar, who is challenging Scientology.

Merryday's order appeared to prevent Beach, a circuit judge, from taking even the slightest action on the issue. Now Beach is asking the federal judge to dissolve his order, in part so Beach can do one more thing with the case: withdraw from it.

The judges were forced to engage after an old Pinellas lawsuit against Scientology, supposedly settled in 2004, continued to simmer over various issues that recently spilled into a new federal lawsuit against the church.

The common thread is Dandar, who in both cases sued Scientology on behalf of families alleging a loved one died because of the church's actions. The church has emphatically denied wrongdoing in both matters.

In his motion, filed late Thursday, Beach says Merryday denied him due process by failing to notify him of the hearing Merryday held before issuing the injunction. Beach also argued that Merryday had no authority to enjoin him because Beach is not a party to the case, and that Merryday has no power to enjoin a judge in another jurisdiction.

Merryday leveled similar charges against Beach in his own order a few days earlier. He accused Beach of overstepping jurisdictional lines, saying Beach had "aggressively" interfered with the federal court system when he fined Dandar for failing to withdraw from the federal lawsuit.

At the heart of the dispute is whether Dandar violated the terms of a settlement between Scientology and the family of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater. After years of litigation, the church paid a settlement and both sides promised not to bother each other or take the other to court any more.

Last year, Dandar turned up as the lawyer for the estate of Kyle T. Brennan in a federal wrongful death lawsuit. The estate says Brennan's apparent suicide in 2007 was the result of improper actions by his Scientologist father and two other Clearwater church members. The church says Kyle Brennan was deeply depressed and Scientology had nothing to do with his death.

The church also argues that Dandar's involvement in the Brennan case violated the terms of the McPherson settlement. Dandar insists the agreement was not as restrictive as the church contends and he is free to take on the Brennan case.

Beach agreed with the church and was upheld on appeal. He ordered Dandar to get released from the Brennan case. Dandar went before Merryday with an "involuntary" request to be released, arguing his client could not find another lawyer who would take on Scientology.

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Merryday refused to let Dandar off the case. Beach responded by levying $130,000 in fines against Dandar and threatening to suspend his law license. That's when Merryday stepped in with his order preventing Beach from taking those actions.

Both judges are well-known locally. Beach has had a long and storied career as a circuit judge in Pinellas. Since retiring in 1992, he fills in as a senior judge.

Merryday has been a federal judge in Tampa since 1992 and has presided over some of the region's most noteworthy cases.

His office said federal rules prohibited him from commenting on Beach's motion.

St. Petersburg lawyer Martin Errol Rice, who represents Beach, said Beach's chief goal in getting the order lifted is to recuse himself. He said Beach feels that recent events have "cast kind of a cloud" over his role in the case.