After six years of litigation, it all comes down to this.
On Thursday afternoon, some 3,700 claimants, scores of attorneys and perhaps even the president himself will be awaiting the ruling to come from a San Diego courtroom in what could be the final chapter in the Trump University legal saga.
Days after winning the presidency in November, Donald Trump settled three class-action lawsuits over his real estate seminar program. Since then, attorneys for the plaintiffs and others have been working to make sure as many class members as possible have the opportunity to get a slice of the $25 million deal.
While roughly 3,730 Trump University students have asked to take part in the settlement, the objections of two people from Florida could prove to be a roadblock to U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel granting final approval.
Curiel, who has already been given briefs from both sides on the objections, is expected to hear further arguments Thursday and could rule from the bench or issue a written ruling later. He will have to determine whether the objections of two people are legally valid and strong enough to derail such a high-profile settlement, which was negotiated over the course of a few days shortly before the trial was to start.
The lawsuits — two in San Diego and one in New York — claimed Trump University employed misleading and predatory sales tactics to extract money from students who claimed they received little in return. The “Gold Elite” program, which advertised a yearlong mentorship and exclusive access to Trump’s real estate resources, cost $35,000.
Trump University did not admit wrongdoing or liability as part of the settlement. Trump said in tweets after the settlement was reached that he needed to focus on the White House: “The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!”
About 7,000 class members in the San Diego lawsuits were eligible to split $21 million of the settlement, but only about half took the steps necessary to accept the settlement terms by the March 6 deadline. While settlement claim forms are still being processed and verified, attorneys project — conservatively — that class members will be able to recover at least 80 cents on the dollar for what they spent on Trump University. Lawyers for the plaintiffs agreed to waive their fees and costs.
“Members could not realistically hope for a better recovery at a jury trial, especially for the foreseeable future during Trump’s presidency,” Rachel Jensen, one of the San Diego plaintiffs attorneys, said in a court filing last week.
The remaining $4 million of the settlement would go to the New York Attorney General’s Office to be disbursed to other class members.
Trump attorney Daniel Petrocelli agreed that the settlement was fair and should be granted despite the two objections, which were flawed, he argued in court papers.
One of the two objecting is Sherri B. Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy attorney who paid $1,495 for a three-day seminar and was pressured to join the “Gold Elite” program, she wrote. She split the $35,000 cost with a friend but later decided it was “a scam,” she said.
Her attorneys argue in a March 6 filing that the notice that was sent to class members in 2015 was unclear and suggested students could “opt out” of the case at a later date and preserve their right to sue Trump individually if they wished. But there was no other opportunity given.
“At the time of the 2015 Class Notice, the case was progressing well and I absolutely expected we were headed towards a trial,” Simpson wrote in a declaration filed in court Wednesday.
In an email Wednesday, one of Simpson’s lawyers, Gary Friedman of New York, said: “Class counsel told the class members in 2015 that they could always opt out later if there were a settlement. They got Court approval for that promise — better yet, they persuaded the Court to make that promise. And now they want (the judge) to renege on that promise. To 7,000 class members. It’s the most open-and-shut due process violation I’ve seen in this business. And it’s a shame, because they did do really terrific work for the class.”
Jensen argues that the notice clearly states participants would give up their rights to sue separately, and the opportunity to opt out only relates to a class member’s decision on whether to be part of a settlement, not whether to leave the case entirely.
After the settlement was announced, Simpson sent in her claim form indicating she wanted to accept it. Jensen said it appears Simpson was later solicited by Friedman to object.
Former Trump University student Robert Guillo wrote in a sworn declaration that he was contacted on Feb. 23 by a man who said he was a New York attorney. The man said Guillo could still object to the settlement and that he would represent Guillo and other Trump University students, Guillo said.
Guillo declined the offer, saying that at the age of 77 he wanted to cash in on the settlement. He said his caller ID traced the phone call to a woman who is a Cardozo School of Law professor and Friedman’s wife.
Phone solicitations by attorneys are often viewed as unethical under professional standards.
Friedman said in an email “the allegations of unlawful solicitation are just wrong.”
Amber Eck, another San Diego plaintiffs lawyer, said in a sworn declaration she spoke to Simpson several times over the course of the lawsuit and she never expressed interest in opting out or bringing her own lawsuit.
The other objector, Harold Doe of Lauderdale Lakes, blamed Trump University for leaving his family homeless and hungry.
“Prior to the settlement, I was told that I would be given at least three times the amount that I was cheated out of, and that senior citizens would be given six times the amount they were cheated out of. I feel that I should be given a full refund plus punitive damages just as I was initially promised, because I suffered immensely as a direct result of Trump and Trump University,” Doe wrote in a letter to the court.
Jensen replied: “As regrettable as Doe’s situation may be, it is not a valid objection.”
Two other objection letters from class members were sent to the plaintiffs attorneys but were not officially filed with the court and likely will not be considered.
One came from Ramona Kleeman, who wrote that she should be reimbursed on “a much higher scale.” She said she attended seminars in Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and Newark, N.J., and racked up traveling costs, as well. She said she believed in the program, but she found that by the time she’d spent $40,000 on gaining the knowledge that she had no money left to put down on any potential real estate investments.
“Not only that, but in using my reserve monies for this program that I believed in wholeheartedly, I no longer had my cushion in paying my own bills that subsequently led me to incurring late fees reporting on my credit report,” she wrote.
Carolyn Class wrote to the lawyers “firmly” objecting to the settlement, saying she “definitely got her money’s worth” at a multi-day seminar in Annapolis, Md. “All of us received valuable information and we went in with our eyes opened. No one was forced to buy a mentorship. Besides all this hoop-la over Mr. Trump, there are many (so-called experienced real estate pros) giving seminars like this throughout the country,” she wrote.