Pulse Survivors Claim They Were Sexually Harassed by Law Firm Staffer Offering Help
Under the guise of providing legal aid, a New Jersey law firm manager allegedly sexually harassed two survivors of the 2016 Pulse Orlando mass shooting, a new complaint says.
Two survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting sued a New Jersey law firm this month, claiming they were sexually harassed, sent explicit text messages, pressured for sex, and used to recruit survivors of other mass shootings by the firm’s office manager.
According to the the complaint filed September 14 in Camden County, survivors Javier Nava and Brian Nunez retained the Conrad Benedetto law firm shortly after the June 12, 2016 mass shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and 58 wounded.
They were approached by the firm’s office manager, John Groff, who claimed the two had “viable legal causes of action” because on their presence at the nightclub.
Soon after, Groff “began texting [the] plaintiffs, not for professional purposes relating to their cases, but to establish personal relationship... and to groom them for his imminent sexual harassment,” the complaint states.
“What John Groff allegedly did was predatory and a profound abuse of power. We allege that Groff exploited two very vulnerable young men, causing immense psychological trauma,” Matthew Luber, the survivors’ attorney, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “This litigation will hopefully put an end once and for all to this pattern of sexual harassment of emotionally vulnerable clients and will compensate the victims for the lifelong trauma this has created.”
To lure other mass-shooting victims, Geoff also created and maintained a Facebook group for survivors, the lawsuit claims. The group, “Survivors of Mass Shootings,” was intended “help each other through our healing process, rather it be a few days or a lifetime,” though Groff did not reveal his true identity.
The law firm was still representing Nava and Nunez when gunman shot and killed 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017. Soon after, Groff asked the two survivors to travel with him to Nevada and California to meet with that massacre’s survivors and convince them to retain the services of the Benedetto law firm, the complaint states.
Groff allegedly even promised to pay for all expenses if Nava and Nunez agreed to meet with other survivors and convince them to hire his firm, thus taking advantage of the men’s “vulnerable condition and the emotional trauma with which they were continued to cope post Pulse shooting,” the complaint states.
The two agreed, believing the trip would be “somewhat therapeutic, a way for shooting victims to connect and share their respective stories,” but soon after, the complaint states, they believed they being used as Groff began to treat them like employees.
The office manager often allegedly told the Pulse shooting survivors to “do [their] job and get other people to sign up,” once pressuring Nunez to record a promotional video for the firm based off his own traumatic experiences. Nunez, feeling “extremely uncomfortable,” eventually gave in.
But instead of recruiting mass-shooting survivors, Nava and Nunez claim they discovered early in the trip that Groff was using the opportunity “as a way to sexually solicit shooting survivors”—including them.
The two men allege that whenever they rejected Groff’s “flirting” and multiple “sexual advances” throughout the multi-city tour, the office manager would threaten to stop paying for their expenses and began to behave in a “hostile and erratic manner.”
“I worked with Javier Nava and Brian Nunez to give them an opportunity to find healing with other people who were the victims of mass shootings. At no point during our interactions—which were always friendly and informal—did Javier or Brian give me any sense that they had a problem,” Groff said in a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
He continued: “I believe this legal complaint is full of incorrect facts and serves as nothing more than an attempt to destroy my professional reputation. I look forward to the opportunity to correct the record and prove that this lawsuit has no merit."
This pattern continued throughout the trip, the lawsuit statues, with Groff eventually sending "sexually explicit text messages and pornographic images in attempts to entice [the survivors] to enter into a sexual relationship with him.”
The lawsuit contains several screenshots of text messages between the two men and Groff. In one exchange, Groff tells Nava to get a manicure “so when I am relaxing you and you go crazy you can’t scratch me.”
“Omg you crazy...,” Nava responded.
On another occasion, Groff purportedly advised Nava to “keep drinking” so “I can fuck with you,” according to messages in the complaint.
“What sexual harassment claims here even more troubling is that neither Groff nor Benedetto have learned their lessons,” Brian Claypool, another attorney for Nunez and Nava, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Claypool, who is a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting, pointed to a 2016 lawsuit in which Groff and the New Jersey firm were sued for similar allegations.
“Benedetto was placed on notice in 2016 of Groff’s alleged predatory behavior and instead of terminating Groff, Benedetto rebranded Groff as a ‘marketing manager,’ and allowed him to continue his abusive and reprehensible behavior,” Claypool explained.
The two Pulse survivors declined to give a statement to The Daily Beast.
“It is quite the coincidence that one of the attorneys who filed this lawsuit just so happens to represent victims of the November 2017 Las Vegas shooting—just like the Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto does,” the New Jersey law firm said in a statement obtained by The Daily Beast. The firm declined to elaborate on what it was suggesting by mentioning the aforementioned “coincidence.”
In addition to the statement, the law offices provided The Daily Beast with a text message exchange between Groff and Nunez, in which the latter purportedly thanks the office manager for their multi-city trip.
“Hey John, again thank you for the great trip and opportunity to get away,” reads the text from January 2018.
“Given the plaintiffs’ heavy use of text message screenshots in the complaint, John thought you might want to include this communication in your reporting,” Wayne Pollock, the Benedetto firm's spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
“There is more to the story than what is in the complaint and if they think they are selecting a few text messages to engage in some sort of tit for tat, they are sadly mistaken,” Luber, the survivors’ attorney, said in response.
“There is a lot more to come.”