Lawyer Clobbered on Verdict for Scientology
TAMPA, Fla. (CN) - A federal judge refused to enjoin the $1 million judgment against an attorney who sued the Church of Scientology despite a settlement agreement.
Florida attorney Kennan Dandar had sued the Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization in state court 17 years ago on behalf of the estate of Lisa McPherson. The lawsuit sought damages for the 1995 death of McPherson, a member of the Church of Scientology, while under the care of the Flag Service Organization.
McPherson, 36, died of a pulmonary embolism in Clearwater, Fla. A medical examiner first ruled her death a negligent homicide, but later changed the cause of death from "undetermined" to an accident. Criminal charges against Scientology were dropped, but McPherson's family pursued civil claims against the church.
After alleging that Scientology's attorneys had used their political connections to influence the outcome of the proceedings in state court, Dandar agreed to a 2004 settlement that dismissed the McPherson lawsuit and barred him from pursuing any other claims against Scientology.
When Dandar filed another wrongful death lawsuit against the organization in 2009, this time in federal court, Scientology sought to enforce the settlement agreement against him. A Pinellas County judge ordered Dandar to withdraw from the new wrongful death lawsuit, and a state appellate court affirmed his decision.
Dandar failed to withdraw from the action, however, prompting the state court to hold him in civil contempt and order him to pay Scientology damages.
The federal court presiding over the new wrongful-death lawsuit enjoined the state-court proceedings, but the 11th Circuit reversed and vacated that injunction in July 2011. A few months later, Dandar withdrew from the wrongful-death action.
The state court meanwhile ruled that Scientology was entitled to all reasonable fees and costs incurred since Dandar's filing of the federal lawsuit.
Dandar then sued Scientology and Johnson Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns, the law firm representing it in state court, in October 2012. He sought to block a hearing on the sanctions Scientology won, as well as any future hearings, and he alleged that Scientology had acted under color of state law in imposing "a practice restriction" that prevented him from representing his client.
After Dandar was denied a preliminary injunction, he filed an amended complaint alleging a conspiracy between the private defendants and certain state actors. The court once again refused to enjoin the state-court proceedings, finding Dandar's allegations "conclusory" and "vague."
U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington dismissed claims for declaratory and injunctive relief in Dandar's second amended complaint last year, finding that federal courts could not interfere with state-court proceedings where the state court had not yet entered a final judgment. Noting that the court did not necessarily lack jurisdiction over Dandar's civil rights claims, however, the judge stayed those claims pending the resolution of the state-court action.
Amid Dandar's appeal of the order, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Sprint Communications Inc. v. Jacobs , a case involving parallel proceedings in state and federal court. It said that federal courts may have jurisdiction over claims involving state-court proceedings that do not fall under certain exceptions. The 11th Circuit then remanded Covington's order, asking her to reconsider the abstention decision, but affirmed the court's denial of leave to amend Dandar's complaint.
In the reopened federal case, Dandar argued that the court had jurisdiction over his claims because a private party, Church of Scientology, had initiated the state court action. He also pointed out that the state court had since entered a final judgment against him in excess of $1 million.
But Covington ruled last week that Scientology's state court action was a civil proceeding involving "orders uniquely in furtherance of the state court's ability to perform its judicial functions," which warranted abstention under principles of federalism.
Interfering with a state court's ability to impose sanctions and fees for a party's failure to comply with court-ordered mediation agreements is an exceptional circumstance that bars federal courts from interfering, the May 28 order states.
Given Dandar's attempt to enjoin the execution of the March 2014 final judgment, the state matter remains pending despite the entry of that judgment, Covington found.
The state court's sanctions order "undoubtedly implicates the state's important interests in administering certain aspects of its judicial system, and that a federal injunction in this case would not only 'interfere with the execution of [a] state judgment [ ], but [it] would do so on grounds that challenge the very process by which th[at] judgment [ ] [was] obtained,'" according to the May 28 ruling (brackets in origingal).
What's more, the judge noted, Dandar wasted the opportunity to raise his constitutional challenges in state court.
Dandar had also failed to allege extraordinary circumstances, such as bad faith, that would warrant federal intervention in state court proceedings, according to the ruling.
The court once again stayed Dandar's claim for damages under Section 1983 pending the resolution of the state-court action, noting that federal courts have a duty to assume jurisdiction where it properly exists.
Dandar and representatives for Johnson Pope did not respond to requests for comment.