Pulse nightclub memorial in Orlando. Photo: John Panella/Shutterstock.com

Two survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando claim in a lawsuit that, after they were solicited via Facebook by a New Jersey law firm as clients, the firm’s office manager pressured them for sex.

The plaintiffs also claim the office manager for the Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto in Voorhees, New Jersey, enlisted them to help solicit clients who were victims of the October mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. When the plaintiffs resisted the office manager’s sexual advances, they suffered retaliation, blackmail and were denied reimbursement for travel expenses to Las Vegas, the suit claims.

The suit filed Sept. 14 in Superior Court in Camden County, New Jersey, and first reported by  NJ Advance Media brings claims for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and improper reprisal under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination as well as consumer fraud and negligence claims against Benedetto, his firm and office manager John Groff.

The Benedetto firm and Groff contend the complaint contains inaccuracies and leaves out information.

A lone gunman who entered the Pulse nightclub killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.

Plaintiff Javier Nava of Orange County, Florida, suffered a gunshot to the abdomen in the nightclub shooting. The other plaintiff, Brian Nunez, from Providence, Rhode Island, was not wounded.

The plaintiffs said they met Groff through a Facebook group he established and maintained, “Survivors of Mass Shootings,” whose stated purpose was to “help each other through our healing process.”

“By holding himself out on Facebook as a fellow victim, Defendant Groff gained access for Defendant Benedetto to a database of vulnerable victims,” the complaint stated.

After Groff “advised Plaintiffs that they had viable legal causes of action based on their presence at Pulse Nightclub” during the shooting, Nava and Nunez said they retained the Benedetto firm to represent them in early 2017. The plaintiffs heard nothing about their cases for months, the suit said.

Soon, Groff began sending text messages to Nava and Nunez, “not for professional purposes relating to their cases, but to establish personal relationships with plaintiffs and to groom them for his imminent sexual harassment,” the complaint stated.

After the October mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and more than 800 injured, Groff enlisted Nava and Nunez to travel with him to Las Vegas and California to offer Benedetto’s legal services, according to the suit. Groff agreed to pay travel, lodging and food expenses for Nava and Nunez, who believed sharing their stories with others would be “therapeutic,” the suit said.

During the trip, Groff allegedly first made sexual advances toward Nunez. When Nunez rejected the advances, Groff threatened to withhold payment for travel expenses, the complaint said.

Later, when the group visited Riverside, California, Groff made advances toward Nava, who likewise rejected the overtures, according to the suit.

The suit alleges Groff then began sending sexually graphic text messages and pornographic images to Nunez and Nava, who stayed on the trip because they had no independent means to return home. Numerous text messages from Groff to the plaintiffs, in which he repeatedly solicits them for sex, are documented in the complaint.

After the trip to Las Vegas and California, Nunez and Nava learned the Benedetto firm never filed any lawsuits on their behalf, prompting them to fire the firm, said Matthew Luber of McOmber & McOmber in Red Bank, New Jersey, who represents Nunez and Nava.

Also representing Nunez and Nava is Pasadena, California, attorney Brian Claypool.

Benedetto’s firm issued a statement saying: “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. This coincidence aside, we believe the complaint contains factual inaccuracies, takes communications out of context, omits facts that would put those communications in a new light, makes factual allegations without a logical basis, and asserts legal claims that are not supported by the alleged facts.”

The statement continued, “We are exploring all of our options regarding the complaint, including investigating whether the filing of the complaint by The Claypool Law Firm and McOmber & McOmber, P.C. was brought in bad faith and without a true factual basis.”

A statement from Groff said: “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 added, “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.”

The high-pressure tactics allegedly employed by the Benedetto firm and other law firms engaging survivors of the Orlando shooting, including Nunez and Nava, were described in an April 2018 New York Times report.

In that report, survivors of the shooting said, “Within days of the traumatizing events, they faced relentless pressure to sign representation contracts.”

The case is not the first time Groff has been accused of pressuring a firm client for sex. A 2016 suit against Benedetto’s firm claims Groff told firm client Javier Carrasquillo, who was facing criminal charges, that the firm would keep him out of jail so he could exploit and solicit sex from him. That case is no longer pending, and its outcome could not immediately be determined.