The attorney representing a San Diego-based porn website accused of coercing young women to have sex on-camera has agreed to pay $110,000 to resolve accusations that his client filed for bankruptcy in order to delay an upcoming civil trial.
In addition, text messages attached to a bankruptcy court filing obtained by NBC 7 Investigates reveal the website, Girls Do Porn, was forced to lay off employees and banned from posting ads for new models on Craigslist.
The court documents filed in Federal Bankruptcy Court are tied to a June 2016 civil lawsuit filed by 22 women who accuse the company and owner, Michael Pratt, of lying to them to convince them to have sex on camera.
According to the civil lawsuit, as well as interviews with women who agreed to share their stories with NBC 7, the website relied on Craigslist to find women between the ages of 18-to-22 who were looking for quick cash. One of the women said she was 17-years-old when she answered the ad and had turned 18 two weeks prior to flying out to San Diego to film.
After responding to the Craigslist ad, the women allege the website’s owners weaved an intricate tale to convince them to appear in the videos.
But on January 29 that case was put on hole after Pratt, through his attorney Aaron Sadock, filed for bankruptcy. The filing came hours after the judge in the civil trial found the women “made a sufficient showing that Defendants engaged in malice, fraud or oppression.”
Attorneys for the 22 women accused Pratt and his attorney of filing a bogus bankruptcy case in order to stall the civil trial.
Federal judge Laura Taylor later heard the case and declined to delay the civil case, later questioning the intent of the filing.
"The fact that he may have financial problems in the future if he is unsuccessful in the trial in the State Court Action might be sufficient to justify a filing, but this was clearly not Mr. Pratt’s intent as evidenced by his dismissal of the bankruptcy case immediately after remand of the State Court Action,” read Taylor’s ruling. “As a result, it appears the petition was not filed in a good faith attempt to reorganize his financial affairs but rather in a bad faith effort to thwart the State Court Action."
Attorneys for the women followed Taylor’s ruling with a request to sanction Pratt’s attorney $160,000.
Listen to how the NBC 7 Investigates team uncovered this story in INSIGHT: Episode Two. Listen below or subscribe on your favorite podcast app.
In that motion for sanctions, the attorneys for the women attached text messages that Pratt had sent to a former employee who was later subpoenaed in the civil trial. According the plaintiffs, the text messages produced by that former employee suggest Pratt was prepared to file for bankruptcy if the civil case took a turn for the worse.
“As soon as I bankrupt the business they are fu@#ed...the case gets held,” wrote Pratt in a September 17, 2018 text message, three months before the civil case ruling in January of this year.
The text message thread also reveals Pratt had laid off workers and the company had been banned from posting ads on Craigslist.
“[Craiglist is] removing our ads and blocking our emails,” Pratt wrote in September of last year. The texts were made public for the first time in a May 28 court filing.
On May 24, although denying that the text messages were anything more than “private venting,” Sadock agreed to pay $110,000 to the women’s attorneys to settle the request for sanctions before any hearing was held.
“While, in hindsight, removing the matter may have been a mistake, Mr. Sadock [filed] the removal because he reasonably believed there were grounds to do so following consultation with an experienced bankruptcy attorney,” read the settlement offer.
The settlement offer filed by Sadock’s attorneys also provided a reason for Pratt’s decision to file for bankruptcy, most notably the revenue lost as a result of no longer being able to post the company’s modeling ads online.
“Pratt found himself considering bankruptcy when he had to lay off employees and he lost an advertising stream as consequences of the prosecution of the State Court Action,” read Sadock’s settlement offer.
Brian Holm represents the 22 women in the civil trial. Holm said the bankruptcy filing was only the latest attempt to stop the civil action.
“For the past three years, Defendants and their attorneys have defended this case by trying to intimidate, harass and annoy plaintiffs in the hopes that they would simply walk away. Our clients have stood tall and are grateful to finally have their day in court. They look forward to exposing defendants as frauds and obtaining vindication for every woman defendant have victimized over the last ten years.”
Pratt’s attorney Sadock did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.
Opening statements in the trial are set to begin July 1, 2019.