Judge Wright Tells Team Prenda To Pay $80k, Refers Their Activity To State Bars, Feds & IRS
from the boom dept
Steele, Hansmeier, and Duffy (“Principals”) are attorneys with shattered law practices. Seeking easy money, they conspired to operate this enterprise and formed the AF Holdings and Ingenuity 13 entities (among other fungible entities) for the sole purpose of litigating copyright-infringement lawsuits. They created these entities to shield the Principals from potential liability and to give an appearance of legitimacy.That last paragraph is the key one. Given all of this, Judge Wright looks at what he can do. First, he digs into the failure of Team Prenda to "conduct a sufficient investigation" into whether or not anyone they were suing actually infringed on the copyrights they held. However, he notes, his bigger concern is not the lack of sufficient investigation, but rather Prenda's attempt at a "cover-up" of this point as well as Gibbs' "hasty after-the-fact investigation, and a shoddy one at that." In fact, he calls certain statements from Gibbs concerning the investigation "a blatant lie."
AF Holdings and Ingenuity 13 have no assets other than several copyrights to pornographic movies. There are no official owners or officers for these two offshore entities, but the Principals are the de facto owners and officers.
The Principals started their copyright-enforcement crusade in about 2010, through Prenda Law, which was also owned and controlled by the Principals. Their litigation strategy consisted of monitoring BitTorrent download activity of their copyrighted pornographic movies, recording IP addresses of the computers downloading the movies, filing suit in federal court to subpoena Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) for the identity of the subscribers to these IP addresses, and sending cease-and-desist letters to the subscribers, offering to settle each copyright infringement claim for about $4,000.
This nationwide strategy was highly successful because of statutory copyright damages, the pornographic subject matter, and the high cost of litigation. Most defendants settled with the Principals, resulting in proceeds of millions of dollars due to the numerosity of defendants. These settlement funds resided in the Principals’ accounts and not in accounts belonging to AF Holdings or Ingenuity 13. No taxes have been paid on this income.
For defendants that refused to settle, the Principals engaged in vexatious litigation designed to coerce settlement. These lawsuits were filed using boilerplate complaints based on a modicum of evidence, calculated to maximize settlement profits by minimizing costs and effort.
The Principals have shown little desire to proceed in these lawsuits when faced with a determined defendant. Instead of litigating, they dismiss the case. When pressed for discovery, the Principals offer only disinformation—even to the Court.
The Principals have hired willing attorneys, like Gibbs, to prosecute these cases. Though Gibbs is culpable for his own conduct before the Court, the Principals directed his actions. In some instances, Gibbs operated within narrow parameters given to him by the Principals, whom he called “senior attorneys.”
The Principals maintained full control over the entire copyright-litigation operation. The Principals dictated the strategy to employ in each case, ordered their hired lawyers and witnesses to provide disinformation about the cases and the nature of their operation, and possessed all financial interests in the outcome of each case.
The Principals stole the identity of Alan Cooper (of 2170 Highway 47 North, Isle, MN 56342). The Principals fraudulently signed the copyright assignment for “Popular Demand” using Alan Cooper’s signature without his authorization, holding him out to be an officer of AF Holdings. Alan Cooper is not an officer of AF Holdings and has no affiliation with Plaintiffs other than his employment as a groundskeeper for Steele. There is no other person named Alan Cooper related to AF Holdings or Ingenuity 13.
The Principals ordered Gibbs to commit the following acts before this Court: file copyright-infringement complaints based on a single snapshot of Internet activity; name individuals as defendants based on a statistical guess; and assert a copyright assignment with a fraudulent signature. The Principals also instructed Gibbs to prosecute these lawsuits only if they remained profitable; and to dismiss them otherwise.
Plaintiffs have demonstrated their willingness to deceive not just this Court, but other courts where they have appeared. Plaintiffs’ representations about their operations, relationships, and financial interests have varied from feigned ignorance to misstatements to outright lies. But this deception was calculated so that the Court would grant Plaintiffs’ early-discovery requests, thereby allowing Plaintiffs to identify defendants and exact settlement proceeds from them. With these granted requests, Plaintiffs borrow the authority of the Court to pressure settlement.
Gibbs’s statement is a blatant lie. His statement resembles other statements given by Plaintiffs in this and their other cases: statements that sound reasonable but lack truth. Thus, the Court concludes that Gibbs, even in the face of sanctions, continued to make factual misrepresentions to the Court.However, he notes that even with this, it is inappropriate to impose Rule 11 sanctions (typically used for attorney misconduct) because the cases have already been dismissed. Wright then goes through a list of other deceptions by Prenda, including the Cooper forgery, ignoring the order blocking early discovery, the self-dealing with the copyright, the failure to disclose their own interest in the case, and other attempts to obfuscate facts. However, he notes, sanctions are still not the most appropriate, given that a decently large sanction wouldn't be effective because the plaintiffs "will transfer out their settlement proceeds and plead paucity."
However, he obviously does not feel they should be let off the hook. So he orders:
- They have to pay the defendant's legal fees of $40,659.86, which he then doubles "as a punitive measure" to $81,319.72, noting "This punitive multiplier is justified by Plaintiffs’ brazen misconduct and relentless fraud."
- He notes that "The Principals, AF Holdings, Ingenuity 13, Prenda Law, and Gibbs are liable for this sum jointly and severally, and shall pay this sum within 14 days of this order." Basically, all of them together are responsible for figuring out how to pay the money. As defined earlier, Steele, Hansmeier and Duffy are "the Principals" though I wouldn't put it past the three of them to claim that they are non-parties to all of this and thus not responsible for the payment.
- The bigger issue: referring the conduct of Steele, Hansmeier, Duffy and Gibbs to various state and federal bars. As Wright notes: "there is little doubt that that Steele, Hansmeier, Duffy, Gibbs suffer from a form of moral turpitude unbecoming of an officer of the court." That won't look good on a resume.
- The even bigger issue: alerting the feds of possible racketeering violations:
though Plaintiffs boldly probe the outskirts of law, the only enterprise they resemble is RICO. The federal agency eleven decks up is familiar with their prime directive and will gladly refit them for their next voyage. The Court will refer this matter to the United States Attorney for the Central District of California. The will also refer this matter to the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service and will notify all judges before whom these attorneys have pending cases. For the sake of completeness, the Court requests Pietz to assist by filing a report, within 14 days, containing contact information for: (1) every bar (state and federal) where these attorneys are admitted to practice; and (2) every judge before whom these attorneys have pending cases.
- And, finally, a smaller issue: Duffy and Gibbs, who are admitted to practice in California are referred to the "Standing Committee on Discipline." That's a relatively minor point given all of the above.
So now we wait to see what, if anything, the feds will do -- though, as Ken noted, when a federal judge recommends such an investigation, the feds tend to follow through.