By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Domestic relations court is a happy place when families celebrate adoptions. The rest of the time it can be a killing field strewn with the casualties of child custody and property battles.
But seldom do hostilities reach the bombshell force of an ongoing spinoff case in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. And with a sitting judge and some prominent South Florida lawyers trading extortion charges, rarely are so many lofty reputations on the line.
This sexy, politically tinged drama — a future Netflix original production? — spotlights dueling, scandalous claims.
Palm Beach County Court Judge Marni Bryson says in a pending lawsuit that nude photos from what she calls her pregnancy “chronicle” somehow landed in the wrong hands.
The judge claims that five years ago, prominent Fort Lauderdale lawyer William Scherer tried to weaponize them and other harmful information to intimidate her. For his messenger he enlisted well-known West Palm Beach litigator Jack Scarola. [Disclosure: Scherer is a financial supporter of Florida Bulldog.]
The motive for this alleged strong-arming was to gain leverage in a battle about her then two-year-old son, according to Bryson. Scherer briefly represented Stephanie Toothaker, a high-profile Fort Lauderdale real estate lobbyist and lawyer, in a related discovery dispute.
Nude photos and a $10M demand
Toothaker was romantically linked to Bryson’s ex-husband, political consultant and lobbyist James Blake MacDiarmid. A year after the divorce, Toothaker and MacDiarmid were living together, according to Bryson’s complaint.
“Bryson took umbrage that MacDiarmid would … shed his skin for a new life and would ask Bryson to pay for his privilege. It was too much,” the complaint says. She returned to family court to try to change the settlement agreement.
Bryson was about to have Toothaker subpoenaed when Scherer intervened.
In the end, Toothaker wasn’t dragged into court and the custody case ended with a private settlement. Four years later, Bryson found herself with mounting child care bills, but she was afraid to ask MacDiarmid for more money, her lawsuit says, because of Scherer’s “threats.”
She resolved to “no longer stand by, a victim.” In an email, Bryson’s lawyer, Paul Turner, gave Scherer and his law firm 72 hours to come up with $10 million; otherwise, they’d be defendants in a lawsuit for serious damages.
Apparently no money changed hands because three days later Bryson made good on her promise.
Two related lawsuits were filed on the same day, April 11, 2019, in different courts. Scherer sued Bryson’s lawyer Turner and his law firm, Perlman, Bajandas, Yevoli & Albright, in Broward Circuit Court for issuing the demand, labeling it “extortion.”
Hours later, Bryson sued Scherer and his law firm, Conrad & Scherer, in Palm Beach Circuit Court for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Trial of Bryson’s claim set for February
Turner responded in court papers that the Scherer lawsuit was an attempt to “criminalize” a legitimate claim. He said he’d used a common pre-filing settlement technique. (Four months later Scherer dropped his suit against Turner. Bryson’s suit against Scherer went to a St. Lucie County judge because her colleagues are conflicted out.)
Five years into this contest, no one is sure who will win, the judge or Scherer.
Also unknown is whether everyone will emerge unscathed. It’s likely the courtroom brawl ignited one or more professional disciplinary investigations; if any exist, though, they’re confidential unless and until they lead to ethics charges. Bryson will be up for reelection in 2022.
Bryson has been pressing St. Lucie Circuit Court Judge William Roby to convene a jury trial and let her seek punitive damages. But in a win for Scherer, Roby ordered Bryson to produce the all-important nude photos by Nov. 30.
On Tuesday Roby set a jury trial docket call for Feb. 26, 2021.
None of the main players or their lawyers — Scarola, Turner, Toothaker and other lawyers for Bryson and Scherer — responded to emailed requests for comment from Florida Bulldog.
Politics, sexual and otherwise, seemingly influenced the 2015 child custody proceedings. A judge since 2010, Bryson would win re-election in 2016 and that upcoming campaign played a role in how she handled the custody case, she said in her lawsuit.
Toothaker as potential witness
A Miami lawyer — presumably Turner — wanted to save Bryson “from reputational injury, public humiliation and scorn… [which] would certainly impact Bryson’s reelection hopes,” the complaint says. Therefore, she folded and let Scherer win, it says.
Bryson apparently thought her ex’s girlfriend, Toothaker, had political ambitions. She “prevailed upon Bryson to avoid mention of her when gossip columnists” found the Bryson-MacDiarmid divorce case, the lawsuit says. Bryson believed Toothaker “had grave concerns about her own public image.”
Recently Toothaker got some favorable attention when Broward State Attorney-elect Harold Pryor named her to his transition team, BrowardBeat.com reported.
She isn’t a party in the Bryson lawsuit and wasn’t directly involved in the custody case. But Bryson considers her a witness with crucial information about the nude photos.Toothaker pops up in Bryson’s ongoing lawsuit as allegedly seeing a nude shot of Bryson in the possession of Peter Kemp, Toothaker’s estranged husband.
On Jan. 27 Scherer filed a motion seeking sanctions against Bryson and Turner for filing a “frivolous” complaint and pursuing it in bad faith. Roby has not yet ruled on that motion.
‘She was dumbfounded’
He did rule against Toothaker’s attempt to assert marital privilege to shield communications between Kemp and herself that Bryson has been trying to get her to testify about.
Still, Bryson may come to regret some of the things she said in her deposition.
In an affidavit, Scarola swore he never spoke with Scherer about using any questionable tactics to influence Bryson in the custody case. He and Scherer maintain they were only trying to resolve a subpoena issue for Scherer’s client Toothaker and protect Bryson from unflattering disclosures.
Bryson’s attorney breathlessly described Scarola’s approach to her, referring to him in the lawsuit as “a prominent Palm Beach attorney.” Scarola’s alleged message: “Unless Bryson acquiesced to her ex-husband’s demands in the child custody matter, intimate photos of the judge would be released publicly.”
“The Palm Beach Attorney wanted Bryson, a mother, a sitting judge in her chambers, to play ball or else,” the complaint says. “Shock and surprise fell upon Bryson. She was dumbfounded.”
Nude photos on social media
Yet at her deposition, Bryson said she couldn’t dispute Scarola’s assertion that he never made any kind of threat. She said she couldn’t recall exactly what he said to her, only the way she interpreted his words.
Bryson claimed the prospect of the nude photos going public horrified her. But here again, her deposition testimony undercut her argument.
Asked in the deposition transcript whether she ever posted any of her pregnancy pictures on social media, Bryson responded, “You mean, like, in the mirror, those pictures without clothing on?”
The questioner assented.
“I think, I did. Yeah. I mean, at my baby shower and stuff like that,” Bryson said. “When I used to have social media, I think I did do that.”