SAN DIEGO (CN) – After just 18 months in the business, a four-person San Diego law firm took on Goliath: business mogul – now President-elect – Donald Trump.
Over the course of the next seven years, the attorneys at Zeldes Haeggquist & Eck would litigate two federal class actions on behalf of 7,000 former Trump University students burdened with debt after paying thousands for the real estate school and in the end not getting what they paid for.
The two San Diego cases – along with a third filed in New York by its Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – ended in a $25 million global class action settlement announced Nov. 18, just 10 days before the first Trump University case was scheduled to go to trial. A pot of $21 million will go to the two California classes, while $4 million went to settle the New York case.
In a surprising move, the class attorneys said after the settlement hearing they chose to litigate the case for free, on a pro bono basis. That decision was somewhat unprecedented.
Courthouse News interviewed the legal team at their downtown San Diego office to find out what it was like to work on the highly publicized cases.
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In 2010, Zeldes Haeggquist & Eck attorney Aaron Olsen took a call from a woman who’d eventually be a class action representative in one of the most talked about court cases of 2016 – Low v. Trump University.
Tarla Makaeff told Olsen she’d been ripped off after investing in the Trump University “elite” package and one-year mentorship program which was supposed to include hands-on guidance from a real estate expert purportedly handpicked by Trump. But she said she never got the real estate guidance she paid $35,000 for.
Makaeff had been trying to get her money back for about five months, firm partner Amber Eck said, first by requesting a refund from Trump University and then going to the Better Business Bureau and other agencies when she didn’t get her money back. Eventually, the Orange County woman got in touch with the small San Diego law firm, whose attorneys began investigating the school.
Partner Helen Zeldes attended a Trump University presentation in San Marcos to find out about the real estate school. She said she was troubled by the promises Trump University was making.
“I was very concerned about the pitch that was given to people, really preying on their vulnerabilities at the time,” Zeldes said.
“The market had crashed; everybody had lost equity in their homes. They asked people, ‘How many of you have lost the equity in your home that you wanted to leave for your children; how many of you wanted to leave your home as a legacy for your children; how many of you want to make that money back?’ They were really trying to convince people this was the way out of that dire situation that so many Americans found themselves in.”
The first class action was filed April 30, 2010. A second class action, Cohen v. Trump, was filed in 2013. Both cases hinged on essentially the same fraud claims, with students claiming they invested up to $35,000 to learn from real estate experts purportedly handpicked by Trump himself. The students said the education they received was equivalent to that of an infomercial.