Saturday, March 12, 2016
Attorneys for Donald Trump and a Southern California yoga instructor dueled in court Friday over whether the yoga instructor should be allowed to withdraw from a federal class-action lawsuit that says Trump University fleeced students with unfilled promises to teach secrets of success in real estate.
After about an hour of arguments, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he would rule in about a week. If Tarla Makaeff is allowed to withdraw, three plaintiffs would remain in the six-year-old case as it nears trial.
Makaeff, who didn’t appear at the hearing, has suffered health problems that were not disclosed in court or to Trump’s attorneys. Rachel Jensen, one of her attorneys, noted that Makaeff has been derided during the presidential campaign.
Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for Trump, said Makaeff was the centerpiece of his trial strategy and that he would have to completely overhaul his approach if she withdrew. Makaeff, who was deposed four times for a total of nearly 16 hours, made statements that “not only undermine but refute the basic claims in the case,” he said.
The skirmish in one of three lawsuits against Trump University came as the stage was being set for trial, possibly in August. A trial date has not been set. Trump appears on a list of defense witnesses who may testify.
On Friday, the judge asked both sides about the wisdom of having a trial between the Republican convention and the general election. Petrocelli said he would oppose an August trial if Trump is the party nominee, while Jason Forge, an attorney for the plaintiffs, suggested a June date.
The lawsuit says Trump University, which no longer operates and wasn’t accredited as a school, gave seminars and classes across the country that were like infomericals, constantly pressuring students to buy more and, in the end, failing on its promise to teach them success in real estate.
Trump has pointed to a 98 percent satisfaction rate on internal surveys. But the lawsuit says students were asked to rate the product when they believed they still had more instruction to come and were reluctant to openly criticize their teachers on surveys that were not anonymous.
Makaeff attended a three-day workshop for $1,495 in 2008 and later enrolled in the “Trump Gold Elite” program for $34,995, spending a total of about $60,000 in a year, her attorneys say. In April 2010, she sued in San Diego federal court.
Makaeff prevailed against Trump in a defamation claim against her in 2013, and a judge ordered Trump to pay $798,779 in her legal fees.