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Scientology Award Reversed: Improper Procedure, Lack of Jurisdiction

Florida’s Second District court of appeals ruled the trial court was void of jurisdiction in deciding a defendant’s motion and awarding damages on a voluntarily dismissed claim.

The Church of Scientology and Kennan G. Dandar had reached a settlement agreement in 2004 in a wrongful death suit against the organization.

Several hundred lawsuits have been brought against the Church of Scientology by former members and media outlets for criminal and civil issues.

In the agreement, Dandar agreed not to be involved in any adversarial proceedings against Scientology at any time or under any circumstances.

The parties subsequently agreed to dismiss the case without prejudice. The parties did not file any orders retaining jurisdiction over any dispute.

Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

In 2009 Dandar filed a complaint against Scientology in a similar action. Scientology filed a motion stating Dandar violated the agreement and requested damages. Rather than following normal procedures and filing the motion with the clerk, Scientology handed the motion over to a judge.

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The appeals court concluded that although there was a clause attempting to reserve jurisdiction, the voluntary dismissal trumped the parties' agreement.

According to state civil procedure rule 1.420(a) and further explained by case law, is once a case is voluntarily dismissed, the proceeding is an act of finality that deprives the court of jurisdiction.

An exception occurs if the trial court dismissed the case based on the parties' agreement. If so, the parties are allowed to file a motion to reopen the case, and to seek enforcement of the agreement.

In this case, no order was entered before or after the dismissal was filed. The result would have been different if Scientology and Dandar presented the agreement to the court for approval before filing a dismissal.

The court concluded that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enforce the agreement and require Dandar to pay $1,068,156.50 in damages to Scientology.

Law of the Case Doctrine

Scientology argued the second district court was not allowed to review the trial court's jurisdiction under the law of the case doctrine.

This law of case doctrine is limited to questions or law actually presented and considered on a former appeal. The court explained that its power extended to procedural questions and its decision was not on the merits.

Further the court stated Scientology would need to file an action for a new civil trial and give Dandar the opportunity to a trial by jury. With the previous proceeding Dandar was not given that right which made the previous proceeding improper.

The court reversed and remanded the case for an order of dismissal.

This case is Kenan G. Dandar and Dandar & Dandar PA v. Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, Inc, Case No 2D14-1511, Second District Court of Appeal Of Florida.

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