Days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, he did something he’d long vowed never to do: fork over $25 million to settle long-running fraud lawsuits over his Trump University seminar program.
But a former student in Florida is balking at the settlement and asking to be allowed to pursue her claims to trial—exactly what the president apparently wished to avoid.
Overall, the settlement offer has won support among many former Trump University students, who are slated to get anywhere from about $1,200 to $30,000, about 80 percent of what they paid.
Those who aren’t satisfied with the offer include Florida bankruptcy attorney Sherri Simpson, who says she paid nearly $19,000 in 2010 for seminars and a mentorship program. She’s arguing that she should be able to continue the litigation in order to see Trump’s alleged fraud publicly exposed.
“She wants to hold Donald Trump accountable for this fraud—this racketeering activity is really what it is,” Simpson’s attorney, Gary Friedman, said in an interview. “Our position is we just don’t like seeing this swept under the rug and it shouldn’t be. This is the most base kind of fraud.”
Trump’s attorneys and the lawyers who backed the federal class-action lawsuits—who waived fees in the case—have suggested Simpson’s objection reeks of politics. Both sets of lawyers noted that she appeared in an anti-Trump political ad.
“The circumstances surrounding her objection suggest it is attorney-driven,” the class-action lawyers wrote. They also pointed out that one of Simpson’s lawyers, Ilann Maazel, was a top attorney for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s “failed election-recount campaign.”
Asked how Simpson’s case is related to Stein’s political efforts, Friedman said: “What’s the connection? Zero.” (The ad Simpson was featured in was run by a conservative, free-market-focused super PAC, the American Future Fund.)
What happens next with Simpson’s objection is in the hands of someone Trump repeatedly attacked during the presidential campaign—often in crude racial terms: U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel. He’s set to hold a hearing Thursday on whether the proposed settlement is fair to thousands of people who paid anywhere from about $1,500 for a three-day seminar up to about $35,000 for the “gold elite” mentorship.
Curiel gave preliminary approval to the deal last December, after encouraging both sides to reach a settlement that averted the spectacle of a civil fraud trial at which the president-elect was expected to take the witness stand as a defendant. In an order, the judge said he’d “determined the proposed Settlement to be fair, reasonable, adequate, and within the range of possible approval.”
From a financial point of view, the proposed settlement is an unusually successful one for the plaintiffs, offering Trump University students about 80% of what they paid. Along with waiving fees, the class-action lawyers who pursued the case for more than six years also agreed to absorb the expense of pursuing the suits.
“No rational actor could expect to do better at trial,” lawyers from San Diego-based firms Robbins Geller and Zeldes Haeggquist wrote in a motion filed last week. “This estimated rate of recovery is exceptional….Class members could not realistically hope for a better recovery at a jury trial, especially for the foreseeable future during Trump’s presidency.”
However, Simpson’s lawyers noted that the suits sought triple damages under federal racketeering laws and under elder-fraud laws in several states. In addition, there’s the possibility a jury could have tacked on punitive damages as well. “Where they crow about it being 80 cents on the dollar, we calculate it to be about 26 cents on the dollar,” Friedman said.
So, far, about 4,000 claims have been filed and about 2,700 verified. Only a handful of former students expressed objections to the settlement.
A couple of ex-students said they deserved more than they’re getting because the large sum they spent on Trump University disrupted their lives.
“I was told that I would be given at least three times the amount I was cheated out of, and that senior citizens would be given six times the amount they were cheated out of,” Harold Doe of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., wrote in a letter to the court. “I feel that I should be given a full refund plus punitive damages as I was initially promised, because I suffered immensely as a direct result of Trump and Trump University. My credit was destroyed because of Trump University. I was homeless with my family because of Trump and Trump University… My family and myself went hungry for days at a time, suffering and struggling.”
Another Trump U. student, Ramona Kleemann of Commack, N.Y., complained the program plunged her into debt, left her without the funds needed to carry out the real estate deals the instructors encouraged and damaged her credit rating.
“What the program ended up doing to me was more destructive financially, that I have not yet recuperated,” Kleemann wrote in a letter to lawyers handling the case. “Hard money lenders wanted good faith money from me to put into the transaction. Well, after expending $40,000, how was I to do this?”
One participant in the weekend seminar program wrote the lawyers announcing the settlement to say she was entirely satisfied.
“I feel I definitely got my money’s worth,” wrote Carolyn Class of Lutherville, 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. I see it on late night TV adds [sic] all the time.”
Simpson, who is backed by five attorneys, appears to be the most serious threat to the settlement. She insists she is not trying to unwind it, but simply seeking the opportunity to “opt out” of the case and file her own lawsuit.
Earlier in the litigation, 13 people were allowed to opt out of the class actions. None of them are known to have subsequently filed suits. Some are Trump fans.
The attorneys backing the proposed settlement say offering a conclusive end to the litigation was part of what prompted Trump to pony up.
“Defendants paid $25 million to avoid the uncertainty that political opponents might solicit opt outs to force a high-profile trial,” the class-action lawyers wrote.
However, a glitch in the wording of a 2015 legal notice about the litigation could give Simpson’s argument some extra punch. Her lawyers point out that the notice said that class members who took no action at that time would be advised in the future “about how to obtain a share (or how to ask to be excluded from any settlement).”
Lawyers for Trump and the class both argue that other provisions in the notice made clear that was the last chance for class members to opt out, but those attorneys have not provided an explanation in court papers of why the stray phrase was there, beyond saying it meant that Trump University students didn’t have to partake in any settlement.
Even if Curiel turns down Simpson’s objection, she has the power to hold up the settlement for more than a year by filing an appeal. Such appeals are a controversial aspect of the class-action process. In some instances, class members file appeals and essentially hold the settlement hostage in exchange for a side deal that can give an objector more money than other members of the class.
The class-action lawyers backing the settlement have already signaled to Curiel that they will ask him to require Simpson to post a bond if she wants to appeal. They have not yet suggested an amount.
Simpson’s attorneys say she’s not trying to cut a lucrative side deal for herself. Friedman added that Simpson’s desire to have her day in court shouldn’t prevent the other class members from settling if they prefer to do that.
“Basically, their argument comes down to: allowing Sherri out blows up the settlement,” Friedman said. “But I don’t think it ought to.”