By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
An unruly family court case that Florida Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis shed right before she got her promotion last year went to a new Palm Beach Circuit judge who seems to be copying Francis’ controversial moves.
Judge Darren Shull was a criminal defense lawyer until Gov. Ron DeSantis named him to the Palm Beach Circuit Court 10 months ago.
Now the family division overseer, Shull was nominated by a commission that included Phillip Fender, a marketing pro and Francis’ husband. (Fender, 60, died on Nov. 27.)
Recently Angela Bentrim, a self-representing party in the family court case, asked the Florida Supreme Court to investigate and give her a different judge.
Bentrim claims Shull, like Francis, is so biased against her, he “predetermined” decisions favoring her ex-husband “without permitting evidence” from her side, Bentrim’s part-time counsel Margherita Downey wrote in a Feb. 7 motion.
Two days later the high court denied the motion and all of Bentrim’s requested relief in a one-sentence order that provides no reason. Her case remains on Shull’s docket.
‘I’M IN SHOCK’
Had the justices decided to take action, their new colleague Francis might have felt obliged to recuse herself because Bentrim filed an ethics complaint against her with the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). The complaint was rejected.
“I’m in shock, absolute shock. I cannot believe the system,” Bentrim told Florida Bulldog last week. When Shull took over her case, “I was so hopeful with him, I thought it was gonna go back to the way it was supposed to be,” she said.
Over the course of her 14-year post-divorce court battle, “I had good judges, good magistrates. They followed the law. Then Shull did the same things that Francis did,” Bentrim said. Angela and Jeffrey Bentrim divorced in 2009 after 12 years of marriage.
Angela Bentrim said her ex-husband owes her at least $35,000 by terms of their marital settlement that sets $1,750 monthly alimony payments. Jeffrey Bentrim owns a decorative fountain company in West Palm Beach; she has a dog-walking business in Loxahatchee. The younger of their two children will turn 18 in July.
“No comment,” said Robert M. Lewis, the Jupiter lawyer who represents Jeffrey Bentrim.
Also like Francis, Shull used a method of informing Bentrim about hearings, orders and other actions that he had to know was ineffective, Downey wrote in her Feb. 7 motion. Effective notice of legal acts is basic due process, meaning fair treatment.
For instance, a Feb. 15 Shull order denying Bentrim’s motion to disqualify him for bias states it would be sent to her “via e-service only” to this address: [email protected] But that’s not Bentrim’s email address, and a test email from Florida Bulldog bounced back with a message saying the domain “couldn’t be found or is unable to receive mail.”
FRANCIS WORKS AT FOURTH DCA
Downey alleges in her Feb. 7 motion that the Fourth District Court of Appeal judges who refused her many attempts to remove Francis and now Shull from Bentrim’s case are “abusing their judicial power to protect colleagues and a political agenda.”
In her motion Downey described FrancIs, Shull and the district court judges as “joining forces to muzzle [Bentrim].”
FrancIs and the Fourth District judges do at least work in close proximity—they’re down-the-hall neighbors.
In addition to her chambers in Tallahassee, FrancIs keeps an office at the Fourth District courthouse on Tamarind Avenue; a guard confirmed she was there on Thursday. A direct phone line to her West Palm Beach chambers has the same area code and prefix as the Fourth District’s main number.
WARNER SLAMS FRANCIS IN DISSENT
Judges who handled the Bentrim case before it got to Francis seemed far more sympathetic to the ex-wife’s situation. Several of them issued contempt rulings against Jeffrey Bentrim for violations of the couple’s settlement agreement.
For example, General Magistrate Damary Stokes found that threatening Jeffrey Bentrim with jail for nonpayment of alimony had been “a motivating factor” in previous court fights. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Bradley Harper agreed and issued a contempt ruling against him in April 2020 that set total past-due alimony at $9,215.
On Francis’ watch the Fourth District ruled against Angela Bentrim five times. She won once, when the court overturned Francis’ $1,200 sanction and contempt order against her.
Only one appellate jurist, former Chief Judge Martha Warner, clearly supported any of Angela Bentrim’s claims. The issue was whether Jeffrey Bentrim could change the terms of the couple’s settlement agreement without first going to mediation.
Francis ruled that he could and a Fourth District panel upheld her order 2-1. Judges Jonathan Gerber and Spencer Levine dismissed Angela Bentrim’s petition “for lack of irreparable harm” and because, as they read the settlement, it “did not provide that failure to mediate would result in dismissal” of the type of petition Jeffrey Bentrim had filed.
Warner dissented, saying Francis had “departed from the essential requirements of law by making findings of fact without any evidence to support them.”
“The harm [of Francis’ order] is irreparable, because the former wife will be completely denied the opportunity to mediate the dispute, as required by the marital settlement agreement,” Warner wrote in her July 1, 2021 dissent. “The record also shows that the former husband has been sanctioned and had a prior petition dismissed because of his failure to mediate.”
FRANCIS DROPS BENTRIM CASE
Angela Bentrim continued making trouble for Francis right up until her ascension to the Supreme Court on Sept. 1.
Florida Bulldog first reported on June 16 about Bentrim’s JQC complaint against Francis. Subsequent stories identified four more complaints.
Yet Francis wrote “no” on her Supreme Court application in her answer to this question: “Has a complaint about you ever been made to the Judicial Qualifications Commission?” She certified that she answered all questions “truthfully, fully and completely.”
In July Francis abruptly dropped the Bentrim case “sua sponte,” or on her own motion, on an “emergency” basis. There was no apparent emergency, but by then Francis was the odds-on favorite for a Supreme Court appointment.
Francis apparently reacted to a pending Bentrim petition asking Francis’ future Supreme Court colleagues to intervene in her case. With Francis off the case, the justices could easily duck the politically fraught matter.
On Aug. 5 DeSantis named Francis to the court a second time. He first appointed her in 2020 but was foiled by a lawsuit that successfully challenged her credentials. This time the appointment stuck.