Avenatti files lawsuit over “mistreatment in federal custody”

Washington — Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who became known for his representation of adult film actress Stormy Daniels and battle with former President Donald Trump, alleges in a new filing with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that he was mistreated while in federal custody in retaliation for his criticisms of Trump and former Attorney General William Barr.

Avenatti is seeking $94 million from the United States, or $1 million for each day he says he was held in solitary confinement or lockdown, according to a copy of the filing obtained by CBS News. He alleges under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) that the federal government is liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment and false arrest, among other acts, while he was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan in 2020.

The claim, known as a Standard Form 95, is the first step toward a potential lawsuit against the government. If a settlement cannot be reached or the agency denies the claim within six months, Avenatti could then file a lawsuit under the FTCA against the U.S. in federal court.

Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, a lawyer with ZMO Law who is representing Avenatti, said the filing was sent to the BOP on Wednesday. Avenatti is alleging in part that prison officials limited his contact with other inmates, friends and family, subjected him to harsh conditions in the wing where he was housed, and allowed him access to one book — “The Art of the Deal,” co-written by Trump — as retaliation for being a vocal opponent of the former president.

A spokesman for the BOP said it “does not comment on pending litigation or matters subject to legal proceedings” and “for privacy, safety, and security reasons we do not provide information about the conditions of confinement for any particular inmate, to include housing quarters.” The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Avenatti is facing federal charges in California and New York for allegedly embezzling money from clients, including Daniels, and is no longer eligible to practice law in California. He was arrested on January 14, 2020, for violating the conditions of his pretrial release in the California case and transferred to the Southern District of New York in Manhattan three days later to face trial there. Avenatti was also convicted last year of attempting to extort as much as $25 million from Nike and sentenced to 30 months in prison. But Avenatti is not expected to surrender to begin serving that sentence until the end of February so he can assist with his pending cases in New York and California.

Another trial in federal court in New York over allegations Avenatti swindled Daniels out of proceeds from a book deal is scheduled to begin later this month. His trial in California over allegations he stole millions of dollars from clients ended in a mistrial in August. The issue of whether he can be tried again is pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

He is appealing his sentence and conviction in the case involving Nike to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Avenatti has been serving his sentence in home confinement in Venice, California, since April 2020, when a federal judge in California granted Avenatti’s request to be released from the MCC due to the risks of COVID-19. Avenatti’s temporary release was extended to February 1. 

“A federal district court judge has found that I was held under terrible conditions and that it was hard to believe it occurred in the United States of America,” Avenatti said in a statement. “I agree and I look forward to holding Trump and Barr accountable for what they did to me in the interest of politics and revenge. I’m not done fighting.”

A lawyer for Trump did not return a request for comment from CBS News.

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Avenatti alleges as the basis of his claim that Trump “fixated” on him “as a burgeoning threat to his presidency and re-election campaign” after he filed lawsuits against the then-president on behalf of Daniels and made statements against Trump in the media. 

Avenatti claims that after he was arrested and taken into custody in January 2020, he was placed in “10 South” at the MCC, the wing that he says has held terrorism suspects and the drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, rather than with the general population, as he requested.

“There was no plausible security reason for housing claimant in 10 South. He had never been convicted of any crime, had no history of violence and was not informed of any threat made against him by other inmates,” Avenatti’s lawyers say. “Rather, claimant’s confinement to 10 South was retaliation for claimant’s criticism of President Trump and other federal government employees, including the attorney general.”

While housed in 10 South, Avenatti alleges he was subject to “brutal conditions,” including around-the-clock solitary confinement. He said he was monitored by prison officials and forbidden from communicating with other inmates or covering himself while using the bathroom. Avenatti also accuses prison guards of falsifying sign-in sheets and failing to conduct required walkthroughs, and restricting his contact with friends and family.

Avenatti claims that when he asked for reading material, his request was first refused. He was then provided a single book, “The Art of the Deal,” co-written by Trump and Tony Schwartz.

Avenatti recalled one instance in February 2020 in which a senior-level employee at the corrections center was escorting him back to his cell and told him Barr ordered him to be housed in 10 South.

Barr characterized the allegation that he was involved in Avenatti’s placement in 10 South as “ridiculous” when the allegations were described to him by CBS News.

Avenatti detailed his experiences in the corrections facility to Politico for an article published in December.

“This is about wrenching open a dark chapter in American history, where they used the prison management system to torture this guy for six weeks because he hurt the feelings of a corrupt president,” Avenatti’s attorney Margulis-Ohnuma told CBS News. “$94 million would make him feel better, but it’s really about — the federal courts will not let prisons stonewall about how this decision was made, and we’ll get information in discovery which I strongly anticipate will show it was made at the highest levels of Washington and it was completely political.”

Avenatti estimates that by the time of his release, he had been held in solitary confinement or under locked-down status for 94 days and allowed to see the sky once.

Avenatti became a media fixture after he burst onto the scene in 2018 with his representation of Daniels, who said Trump paid her $130,000 just before the 2016 presidential election to remain quiet about an alleged sexual encounter a decade earlier. Trump denied the allegations.

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