By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
It could be a telenovela plotline, except it’s straight out of new court documents in a high-stakes contest over an upcoming Palm Beach County trial:
A state court judge tries to destroy the woman she blames for her failed marriage. The other woman is a powerful lawyer/lobbyist who advises a county commission.
The judge harasses the lawyer and her boyfriend, the judge’s ex-husband, with angry emails and texts until the lawyer files a police report. The judge sends a nude photo of herself, displaying her pregnancy, to a friend who happens to be the lawyer’s ex-husband.
The judge tries to subpoena the lawyer to provide evidence against her boyfriend, the judge’s ex, in a post-divorce action.
When two prominent male lawyers intervene, the judge backs off the subpoena. Four years later she sues one of them, claiming he threatened her and left her emotionally scarred. She demands enough money damages to strike back forcefully.
Meet the cast and crew
Quite a soap opera. Except these are real people and serious allegations. The chief antagonists are Palm Beach County Court Judge Marni Bryson and attorney William Scherer. (Disclosure: Scherer has been a financial supporter of Florida Bulldog.)
The lawyer Bryson accuses of serving as Scherer’s enforcer is Jack Scarola of the Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley law firm in West Palm Beach. The other woman is Fort Lauderdale attorney Stephanie Toothaker, an adviser to the Broward County Commission.
Her boyfriend, who is divorced from Bryson, is political consultant and lobbyist James Blake MacDiarmid. Toothaker’s ex-husband is businessman Peter Kemp.
On April 11, 2019 Bryson sued Scherer and his Fort Lauderdale-based law firm Conrad & Scherer for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Three days earlier, a lawyer for Bryson demanded $10 million from Scherer to avoid litigation that could wind up costing him a lot more. Scherer didn’t pay, and Bryson sued him in her Palm Beach County home court.
The unflattering portrait of Bryson that emerges from Scherer’s court filings is supported by sworn statements and largely unchallenged in court records. Bryson admitted in a deposition that she posted her pregnancy photos on social media, sent them to her then-husband MacDiarmid, and never followed up to retrieve the photos or find out what he did with them.
Threat to show nude photo or helpful advice?
Only Scherer and Scarola know how they strategized for a 2015 meeting between Scarola and Bryson in her court chambers. There, she says, he conveyed the threat that if she didn’t leave Toothaker alone, others would see the nude photo she had shared with Kemp, Toothaker’s ex-husband.
Bryson dropped the Toothaker subpoena. Four years later she decided to sue Scherer because she needed more child support, but remembering Scherer’s threat, she was afraid to approach MacDiarmid about money, according to her complaint. She resolved to “no longer stand by, a victim.”
Lawyers for Bryson did not respond to a request for comment from Florida Bulldog. The judge is represented by Paul Turner and Katie Phang.
In court documents, Scherer and Scarola insist they never threatened Bryson. They say they were trying to protect her from embarrassing revelations by Toothaker, Scherer’s client at the time. Scarola had counseled Bryson in an unrelated matter.
Now the case of Bryson v. Scherer may take a detour to a higher court because Bryson is pulling ahead in a way that has to vex Scherer. She’s on track to try to convince a jury he made her so upset, he and his law firm should pay punitive damages—a boatload of money.
‘Odd, yet intriguing case’
On March 8, Scherer’s lawyers filed a petition asking the Fourth District Court of Appeal to review and reverse a ruling by St. Lucie County Circuit Judge William Roby. He was recruited to handle Bryson’s Palm Beach County lawsuit because her colleagues had an obvious conflict.
“We prefer to have the petition speak for itself,” lawyers for Scherer responded to a request for comment from Florida Bulldog. Scherer is represented by his law partner Irwin Gilbert, Bruce Rogow, Gail McQuilkin, Harley Tropin and three less-senior lawyers.
The Roby ruling they’re challenging in the Fourth DCA allows Bryson to add a punitive damage claim to her lawsuit.
Roby seems to think his Feb. 5 decision is spot on. In an unusual introduction he stated, “One of the nirvana moments of judging is when the right thing melds into the legal thing and all is right with the world, even if only for an instant.”
The ruling doesn’t mean Roby agrees with Bryson that Scherer and Scarola plotted to threaten her. It just means in his opinion, she presented enough evidence to let a jury decide who’s right.
Bryson makes “a very valid case” for a punitive damage claim “in this odd, yet intriguing case,” Roby wrote.
“The case boils down to he said/she said/they said/why he was there when it was allegedly said/why he was sent to allegedly say the things that she says he said in the first place.” Roby was referring to Scherer, Bryson, Scarola and the claimed threat.
Trial and upcoming campaign
Scherer’s lawyers argue there isn’t enough evidence in the record to justify letting a jury consider awarding punitive damages. Roby permitted Bryson’s big bucks claim “based solely on her subjective interpretation of the privileged conversation between Scherer and Scarola,” the petition states.
In other words, Scherer’s lawyers say the judge gave too much weight to how Bryson felt about her encounter with Scarola, regardless of whether there’s any chance Scherer committed an act so outrageous, he could conceivably deserve the punishment of punitive damages.
And how could he “threaten” her with releasing a nude photo she’d already released?
Roby scheduled a March trial, but the Fourth DCA dispute put it on hold. A long postponement could focus attention on the case during Bryson’s 2022 re-election campaign.
Bryson may or may not be under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Or perhaps regulators have already decided there’s no probable cause to file ethics charges against her. Privacy rules prevent disclosing complaints unless they result in charges.
Curiously, although Bryson sued Scherer for damages resulting from a threat, her response began and ended there, his lawyers note. “Bryson did nothing to report this alleged threat either to the police, the Florida Bar, or anyone else,” the petition says.