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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Scientology’s Legal Foe May Still Face Sanction

(CN) - A Florida court must decide whether to sanction a lawyer who sued the Church of Scientology for wrongful death despite a settlement agreement, a federal judge ruled.

Lisa McPherson died of a pulmonary embolism while under the care of the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, Fla. A Florida medical examiner first ruled McPherson's 1995 death a negligent homicide, but later changed the cause of death from "undetermined" to an accident.

Prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against the Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, but McPherson's family filed a state-court civil suit in 1997.

Under a 2004 settlement, McPherson's representatives, including their attorney Kennan Dandar, were barred from ever suing Scientology again.

Five years later, however, Dandar sued Scientology again for wrongful death, this time in federal court and on behalf of another family.

A Pinellas County judge ordered Dandar to withdraw from the new lawsuit and any other actions against Scientology, except the settled McPherson case. Dandar appealed the order, but the appeals court affirmed the state court's decision.

After discovering that Dandar had not withdrawn from the 2009 lawsuit, the state court found Dandar in civil contempt, again ordered him to abandon the action, and imposed a $1,000-per-day fine until withdrawal.

A federal judge blocked sanctions proceedings against Dandar in state court, but the 11th Circuit reversed and vacated that injunction.

In November 2012, the state court held a hearing on the amount of damages that Dandar would have to pay to Scientology for violating the settlement agreement. The judge did not immediately announce a decision, and asked for final written submissions by Dec. 27.

Dandar then sought to remove the sanctions proceedings to federal court, claiming that he was "punished by the state court for filing a federal action."

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington ruled that the federal court lacked original jurisdiction over both the McPherson wrongful-death claims and Scientology's attempt to enforce the settlement agreement.

"Regardless of which party is viewed as the 'originator' of the claims that Dandar attempts to remove, that party has relied on state law in framing its cause of action," the Jan. 18 decision states.

What's more, the 30-day opportunity for removal expired in 2010, when the state court found Dandar in contempt and ordered him to withdraw from the 2009 federal lawsuit. By that point, Dandar knew that the state court was considering punitive sanctions against him, the court found.

The McPherson lawsuit and the settlement dispute were too far advanced in state court to permit removal to federal court, according to the ruling.

Covington remanded the sanctions proceedings back to the circuit court, but denied Scientology's request for attorneys' fees.

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