Trump University suits face final hurdle to settlement

Elliot Spagat
Associated Press

San Diego — President Donald Trump faces one last hurdle to ending nearly seven years of lawsuits over his now-defunct Trump University when a judge decides Thursday whether to approve a $25 million settlement with former customers.

When attorneys reached a deal 10 days after Trump’s election, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he hoped it would be part of “a healing process that this country very sorely needs.” A month later, he granted preliminary approval of the deal.

Last week, attorneys for former customers said their clients will get at least 80 percent of their money back, based on the roughly 3,730 claims submitted. Trump has paid $25 million into escrow to settle two federal class-action lawsuits before Curiel and a civil lawsuit by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He admitted no wrongdoing.

The lawsuits allege that Trump University gave nationwide seminars that were like infomercials, constantly pressuring people to spend more and, in the end, failing to deliver on its promises.

Two customers have objected to the settlement. Sherri Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, attorney, says she wasn’t given enough opportunity to opt out of the lawsuit and should have the right to sue the president.

Simpson and a partner paid $35,000 in 2010 to enroll in Trump University’s “Gold Elite” program to be paired with a mentor who would teach them Trump’s secret real estate investment strategies. Simpson, who appeared in two anti-Trump campaign ads, said they got little for their money — the videos were 5 years old, the materials covered information that could be found free on the internet and her mentor didn’t return calls or emails.

“I would like an admission that he was wrong, an admission that, ‘Oops, maybe I didn’t handle it as well as I should have, I didn’t set it up as well as I should have, that I didn’t maintain it or oversee it as well as I should have,’” Simpson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Attorneys for Trump and those suing him say the deadline to opt out was in November 2015 and Simpson missed her chance. Thirteen people opted out before that date, none of whom have shown any desire to sue the president.

Another customer, Harold Doe, objected to the settlement because he wants more money, according to court filings by attorneys for Trump and the plaintiffs.

Trump University dogged the Republican businessman throughout the campaign as rivals used Trump’s depositions and extensive documents filed in the lawsuits to portray him as dishonest and deceitful. Trump brought more attention by repeatedly assailing Curiel, insinuating that the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage exposed a bias.

The settlement was reached 10 days before a trial was set to begin, sparing Trump what would have been a major distraction. The trial would have been pinned on whether a jury believed Trump misled customers by calling the business a university when it wasn’t an accredited school and by falsely advertising that he hand-picked instructors.

Trump vowed never to settle but said after the election that he didn’t have time for a trial, even though he believed he would have prevailed.