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A 'porno-troll' gets slapped down by another federal judge

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What will it take to make these 'porno-trolls' go away?
The 'porno-trolls' of Prenda make another friend in the federal judiciary

Lawyers formerly associated with the strange legal phenomenon known as Prenda Law Group, who have inspired disdain among judges all about the country, added to their brigade of critics Tuesday.

Remember Prenda Law? They were a gang of attorneys who attempted to squeeze instant settlements from hundreds, maybe thousands, of people by threatening to accuse them publicly of illegally downloading dirty movies from the Web.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright of Los Angeles delivered the most telling blow against Prenda last May, when he labeled the firm part of a "porno-trolling collective" operating under a "cloak of shell companies and fraud." We covered the amazingly bizarre and convoluted case here

The newest member of the fan club is Judge David Tatel of federal circuit court in Washington, D.C., who wrote Tuesday: "Sometimes individuals seek to manipulate judicial procedures to serve their own improper ends. This case calls upon us to evaluate -- and put a stop to -- one litigant's attempt to do just that."

The case before Tatel involves AF Holdings, one of the ostensible owners of the porn-movie copyrights allegedly infringed by more than a thousand Internet users being sued in his court. Judge Wright found last year that AF had been formed by the principles of Prenda Law -- John Steele, Paul Hansmeier and Paul Duffy -- "for the sole purpose of litigating copyright-infringement lawsuits." Prenda itself has formally disbanded since Judge Wright's broadside, but Judge Tatel had no difficulty connecting the dots between Prenda and the lawyers appearing in his case.

Tatel collected examples of the disdain with which his fellow jurists regarded lawyers associated with Prenda, including the finding of a federal judge in Illinois who wrote that Prenda's principals showed "a relentless willingness to lie to the Court on paper and in person, despite being ... sanctioned by other courts, and being referred to state and federal bars, the United States Attorney in at least two districts, one state Attorney General, and the Internal Revenue Service."

Tatel's ruling involved subpoenas issued by AF Holdings to Internet service providers Cox Communications, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Bright House Networks. The subpoenas sought the names of more than 1,000 customers AF said had illegally downloaded, and therefore infringed its copyright on, a porn film entitled "Popular Demand."

The subpoenas seemed to follow the Prenda pattern, in that AF had no real evidence that the customers whose names it was seeking actually committed the offense. The Prenda strategy suggests, as Tatel concluded, that AF didn't really intend to sue them; its typical practice was to scare the target customers into forking over several thousand dollars each to make the threat go away quietly.

As it turned out, three of the five ISPs had no subscribers in Washington, D.C., where the subpoena applied. AF Holdings, Tatel wrote, "clearly abused the discovery process."

If nothing else, you have to give these lawyers props for tenacity in the face of grave professional jeopardy. Their antics have gotten them cited for discipline in Minnesota, Los Angeles, and now possibly in Washington, D.C. (Judge Tatel said he would leave possible sanctions up to a lower court in his jurisdiction.)

But why shouldn't they keep at it as long as they can? Despite all those referrals for professional discipline, at least some of the attorneys are still practicing law, if you can call it that. As recently as March, federal Judge David Herndon of Illinois slapped Steele, Hansmeier and Duffy with a contempt citation for (among other things) submitting "suspicious" financial documents to support a claim that they couldn't afford to pay a previous financial sanction.  

In a recent article about the two defense attorneys who helped bring down Prenda in California, the ABA Journal called the Prenda saga "part of legal folklore." That's nothing for the profession to be proud of. 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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