Michael Avenatti sued for allegedly siphoning paraplegic's US$4 million settlement

Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti leaving a New York court house in May 2019.
Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti leaving a New York court house in May 2019.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who represented porn star Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against United States President Donald Trump, has been sued by a paraplegic former client who accused him of siphoning away a US$4 million (S$5.4 million) settlement he had won.

Mr Geoffrey Johnson is seeking at least US$9.5 million, plus punitive damages, from Avenatti and several former colleagues in his civil lawsuit filed with the Orange County Superior Court in California.

"I never thought I would get victimised by my own attorney," Mr Johnson, who uses a wheelchair, said at a press conference on Thursday (June 13). "I wish he had just given me my money."

Mr Johnson's claims are also part of federal prosecutors' criminal case against Avenatti, who has pleaded not guilty to wire fraud, bank fraud, extortion and other charges, including defrauding other clients, in California and New York.

"Mr Johnson's claims are categorically false and frivolous, and his case will be thrown out of court," Avenatti said in an e-mail.

Avenatti drew national attention through his representation of Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, in lawsuits against Mr Trump and the President's former lawyer Michael Cohen, and briefly flirted with a 2020 White House run.

'Off-the-charts bad'

Mr Johnson said he obtained the US$4 million settlement with Los Angeles County in January 2015 over injuries he suffered by jumping from an elevated floor in a downtown Los Angeles jail, in the second of two attempted suicides in August 2011.

He said he had mental health issues when he was wrongly arrested in April 2011, and tried to kill himself after enduring abuse by sheriff's deputies and other inmates at the jail.

The June 11 complaint accused Avenatti of draining nearly all of the US$4 million settlement, while paying Johnson roughly US$1,900 a month to lull him into thinking his money was safe.

Mr Johnson also said Avenatti lied to the Social Security Administration about the monthly payments, costing him needed supplemental benefits.

"On a 1-to-100 scale, the despicability of his conduct ranks 1,000," Mr Johnson's lawyer Daniel Callahan said at the press conference, referring to Avenatti. "It is off-the-charts bad."

Mr Johnson also accused Avenatti's former colleagues Michael Eagan, Jason Frank and Scott Sims at the Eagan Avenatti law firm of covering up his activities.

The firm filed for bankruptcy protection in March, and there has been litigation among its former lawyers.

Mr Eric George, a lawyer for Mr Frank, called him "as much a victim of Michael Avenatti as anyone else. It is regrettable that Mr Johnson's lawyers are misdirecting their claims".

 
 
 

Mr Sims, in an e-mail, said he has evidence that Avenatti "stole Mr Johnson's settlement money", and alerted federal authorities.

"We are appalled by Mr Avenatti's conduct and hope that Mr Johnson obtains justice against Mr Avenatti," he said.

Mr Eagan was not immediately available for comment.

'PILE ON PUBLICITY STUNT'

Prosecutors said in April that Avenatti diverted some of the US$4 million to finance his coffee shop business and a lavish lifestyle, and gave Mr Johnson only about US$124,000.

In his e-mail, Avenatti said Mr Johnson would have been convicted "but for my assistance", and had previously acknowledged in writing that he had always acted ethically when representing him.

He called the lawsuit "part of a 'pile on' publicity stunt to smear me".

In addition to the US$4 million and punitive damages, Mr Johnson is seeking at least US$500,000 for lost Social Security benefits and US$5 million for severe emotional distress and other damages.

The criminal case also accuses Avenatti of trying to extort more than US$20 million from Nike Inc by threatening to expose what he called its improper payments to college basketball recruits, and misappropriating nearly US$300,000 of payments from Ms Daniels for her memoir.

If convicted on all charges, Avenatti could face more than 400 years in prison, but would likely face a lesser punishment.