Judge: Lawyer abandoned case
By Bridget Hall, Staff Writer, Ocala Star-Banner
OCALA, FL — A federal judge has dismissed the abortion clinic’s lawsuit against local law enforcement and anti-abortion protesters, ruling that Dr. James Pendergraft’s attorney has abandoned the case.
Pendergraft’s attorney, Roy Lucas, has failed to respond to numerous motions filed since August, leaving U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges to conclude Dec. 16 that Pendergraft no longer wanted to pursue the case.
Attorneys for the city, county and anti-abortion protesters said they began asking three months ago for the case to be dismissed because Lucas was not responding to their requests or providing any information.
“The city’s position was, what is your proof that all of these horrible things you say are happening are happening, and what are your damages?” city attorney Patrick Gilligan said. “They wouldn’t produce that.”
Lucas did not respond to requests for comment, and Pendergraft’s spokeswoman Marti Mackenzie said the doctor had not yet seen the judge’s ruling.
“Dr. Pendergraft still believes his claims are valid,” Mackenzie said. “He’s anxious to talk with his attorney and see what the next step is.”
Pendergraft filed suit just over a year ago against the City of Ocala, the Ocala Police Department, Marion County and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, saying his right to equal protection under the law was violated when both law enforcement agencies denied his requests for a special duty officer to guard the Ocala Women’s Center.
Both agencies allow officers to work special security assignments in addition to their regular hours. The officers are uniformed, armed and have full arrest powers, but they are paid by the businesses that request them.
Ocala Police Chief Morrey Deen said he denied the clinic’s request because a police officer guarding the clinic could give the appearance of law enforcement taking sides in the heated abortion debate. The sheriff’s office denied the request because the clinic is within the city limits, which is OPD’s jurisdiction.
Pendergraft also sued the Rev. Ed Martin, Meredith Raney and 10 other unnamed abortion clinic protesters, saying they were harassing clinic personnel and patients.
Martin has vehemently denied the charges, saying he and the protesters are simply exercising their free speech rights on a public sidewalk. Raney said he has nothing to do with the case because he has never even been to the Ocala clinic.
“Of all of the allegations in the complaint, none of them had any resemblance to what happened,” said Martin’s attorney, Mathew Staver. “Where (Lucas) got that information was from the imagination of his own mind. When it came time for him to prove it, he couldn’t and he didn’t.”
Pendergraft, who wears a bullet-proof vest and army-style helmet to the clinic because he said he fears for his safety, filed the suit to get police protection, restrict the protesters’ activities and recover unspecified monetary damages.
Hodges ruled in April that until the case came to trial, Ocala Police could not refuse Pendergraft’s request for an officer. Pendergraft had an officer for one day, but then refused to sign OPD’s revamped contract for the special duty program.
The clinic has not had a police officer guarding it since then, Gilligan said.
Pendergraft’s suit also asked that protesters be banned from coming within 75 feet or bringing any surveillance equipment or weapons within 1500 feet of the abortion clinic.
If Pendergraft had his way, protests outside the clinic would have been limited to no more than five picketers gathering for only one hour twice a week. He also wanted the court to prevent protesters from having pictures on their signs and require the signs to carry a disclaimer saying abortion is medically safe and legal.
Hodges refused in April to impose those restrictions on the protesters until the case could come to trial, saying the protesters have acted within their First Amendment rights.
Martin said the restrictions were ridiculous — and unnecessary.
“Nobody’s ever brought a weapon,” Martin said. “We’re just out there as nonviolent protesters to something we think is wrong, and offering assistance to women going in. We’ve never had a problem with the police.”
Attorneys for the numerous defendants said they would ask the appellate court to force Pendergraft to pay for their costs from this “frivolous” lawsuit. Gilligan said the cost to the city has been at least $15,000, and Staver estimated the costs for all parties at about $75,000.
This case is the second abortion clinic lawsuit handled by Lucas to be dismissed in recent months.
In September, U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp dismissed a suit by the Aware Woman Center for Choice in Orlando against CompuServe, America Online, Meredith Raney and 16 other protesters.
The suit, which Lucas filed in January for clinic owner Patricia Windle, alleged that Raney and the other protesters harassed clinic personnel and patients, using those Internet providers’ databases to get personal information about them.
Sharp dismissed that suit because, as with the Ocala Women’s Center suit, Lucas had failed to respond to several motions and serve many of the defendants with the necessary paperwork.