Public Defender Howard Finkelstein Wins Lawsuit Against Mental Health Expert
A federal judge finally put the brakes on a lawsuit that has been rumbling through the court system since 2010, a high-profile match-up between the public defender's office and a former pro wrestler turned psychologist who previously had been one of the office's go-to courtroom experts. The ruling, issued by Federal Judge Donald Graham, may have finally settled a long-running beef on behalf of Finkelstein — one that had paralyzed the Broward criminal justice system for years.
Dr. Michael Brannon — or Dr. Red Roberts if you're a fan of the sweaty-gym pro wrestling scene of the ’70s and ’80s — found considerable work testifying on the mental health of public-defender clients going back to the mid-2000s. As New Times reported in 2013, from 2005 to 2008, Brannon racked up $1.5 million from the office in billings, with $608,757 in 2006 to 2007 alone. Finkelstein, seeking to downplay his office's disproportionate reliance on Brannon, switched up the system of how experts were chosen for cases. The result cut down Brannon's work from the office.
Brannon, however, didn't see it as a cost-cutting measure. The doctor felt the work reduction was in retaliation for Brannon's testimony at a disciplinary hearing against a Broward judge in 2007. Brannon contended that Finkelstein cut his work in response to Brannon's support of the embattled judge. Bad blood and spats flowed between both parties, culminating in 2010, when Brannon was completely cut off from work with the office. He followed with legal action. His federal lawsuit contended that his First Amendment rights were violated by the retaliation.
In the end, after a trial this summer, Judge Graham did not agree. The judge wrote in his ruling:
"Although the impact of the Public Defender's policy change may have significantly impacted Brannon's pocket, causing him more than a 'de minimis' inconvenience, the preponderance of the evidence shows that Finkelstein would have reduced Brannon's referrals, along with that of all experts, even in the absence of his JQC [disciplinary hearing] testimony... the preponderance of the evidence is that Finkelstein began the process of reducing referrals to experts... well before becoming aware of Brannon's protected activity."
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