The Church of Scientology has been in a battle with Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar for eight years. The church has been attempting to collect $1.07 million from the attorney, but a recent appeals court just turned things around completely. In the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the original county court decision was overturned. Although the court found Dander in violation of terms, the appeals judges unanimously ruled that the agreement was never properly formalized in the first place. If the ruling stands, it will reverse a previous court order that allowed the Church of Scientology to garnish the Dander law firm’s bank account.
Dander was pleased with the appeals court ruling. “It’s a great day and I feel vindicated,” he told reporters. “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.”
This case dates back to the death of 36-year-old Scientologist Lisa McPherson in 1995. She died after 17 days in the care of Clearwater Scientology church staff. Dander agreed to represent McPherson’s family and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the church. In 2004, the parties reached a settlement, which Dander signed. This settlement agreement became the source of the years long dispute between the church and the attorney. The church claims that Dander agreed that he would never sue Scientology again as part of the terms of the agreement. However, he maintained that he never agreed to those terms.
In 2009, Dander took on the case of another woman who was filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the church of Scientology. The lawsuit was dismissed eventually, but Dander’s participation opened up a whole new legal battle between his firm and the church. In early 2014, a Pinellas circuit judge sided with the lawyers for the Scientologists and ruled that Dander would have to repay the church it legal fees and other costs totaling over a million dollars.
The church froze the firm’s bank account, along with the account of one of his clients. His business was forced to work under incredible restrictions. “The 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.”
Dander continued to fight the church in court, filing objections and preventing the church from ever collecting money from him or his firm. Now that the original ruling has been overturned, Dander is excited to move on. However, he believes the Scientologists will continue to come after him. “They can appeal it to the Supreme Court. They can do all kinds of things,” he said. “They will try to figure out a way to continue this somehow.”
Christopher Ligori, a Tampa personal injury attorney, said the case brings up some difficult questions. “It makes all attorneys take a moment to really think through the terms of agreements and reexamine even tiny clauses to make sure they won’t have this type of long-term impact on our firms.”