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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Newspaper Wants Trump U. Docs Unsealed

SAN DIEGO (CN) - The Washington Post asked a federal judge to unseal documents in a class action lawsuit against Donald Trump and his real estate-related Trump University, saying Trump's run for the presidency entitles the public to "access by default."

Lead plaintiff Art Cohen sued Trump in 2013, claiming he defrauded students through his real estate school, which he called a bait-and-switch scheme.

The parties agreed to a protective order for documents submitted during discovery. But some of the sealed documents have already been made public, including portions of Trump's Jan. 21 deposition, which federal Magistrate Judge William Gallo ordered lifted in March.

In its 32-page memorandum filed April 1, the Post says that more than 900 pages of records have been filed under seal in a "blanket approach" in connection with Cohen's motion for class certification.

In light of Trump's credible run for the presidency, the Post says, the public "is entitled to access by default."

"This case focuses on allegedly deceptive commercial practices by a leading presidential candidate whose claim to be qualified for the presidency hinges on his business record," the Post says in its summary of the case. "Defendant and his opponents both point to Trump University ('TU') as prime evidence of that record, for better or worse. Plaintiff's allegations in this case, and the lawsuit itself, have become prominent campaign issues. And defendant has repeatedly questioned the fairness of these proceedings while on the campaign trail.

"Given these extraordinary circumstances, the need for transparency is paramount."

When the parties jointly filed documents under seal, they "never made the rigorous showing required to overcome the public's presumptive right of access," the Post says in its 32-page memo.

It claims the blanket sealing order does not meet the requirement that restrictions on public access be "narrowly tailored" to truly sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers or home addresses.

The Post requested limited intervention to ask the court to immediately unseal multiple exhibits and documents, including declarations of Cohen's attorney Jason Forge and Trump's attorney Nancy Stagg.

The controversy over Trump University and pending class action lawsuits in New York and California have been issues on the campaign trail, and, the Post says, have "invited the utmost public scrutiny."

"Not only has the campaign focused on defendant's business practices, but the lawsuit itself has become a hotly debated electoral issue," the Post says in the memo. "On the campaign trail and in TV appearances, defendant has criticized the court's handling of this case. By choosing to turn the adjudication of this lawsuit into a campaign issue, defendant has invited the utmost public scrutiny."

Google searches for "Trump University" spiked during the Feb. 25 Republican presidential debate, the Post says, showing that "the issue resonated with the public."

Citing 57 court cases, including a pending case filed by Courthouse News Service in Ventura County, the Post says the motion for class certification it wants unsealed is "more than tangentially related to the merits of this case."

"They made no particularized showing of good cause to seal any specific document, and made no effort to show compelling reasons or an overriding interest to overcome the public's right of access," the Post says. It claims the stipulated protective order does not constitute a compelling reason to shield judicial documents from the public.

The Post disputed the argument that unsealing the records could hurt Trump's business dealings, saying, "Many courts have found that litigants who try to seal records because of 'trade secrets' and commercial harm are really worried about negative publicity."

Trump has portrayed Trump University's record "as emblematic of the successful business record that qualifies him to be president," the Post says.

Trump has responded to criticism on the campaign trail by saying the case lacks merit, and even calling it "a racially charged attack on the court" - suggesting U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel has treated Trump unfairly "because of everything that's going on with Mexico," the Post pointed out.

Since litigation began on the Cohen and long-running Makaeff class, extensive information has emerged publicly about Trump University. This casts "serious doubt" on the claim that more disclosure of details about Trump University's management, finances and operational strategy would cause him commercial harm, the Post says.

And due to Trump's run for president, "proponents of secrecy must meet an even stricter burden to overcome the more substantial public interest," the Post says.

"Not only does the case involve 'issues important to the public,' but defendant is seeking to become the most powerful public official in the country, if not the world," the Post says in the memo.

The Post is represented by Dan Laidman and Alonzo Wickers with Davis Wright in Los Angeles, who told Courthouse News the Post does not comment on pending litigation

Cohen's attorneys Rachel Jensen and Jason Forge with Robbins Geller did not wish to comment.

Trump's attorney Daniel Petrocelli did not return an email request for comment.

A hearing has been set for May 27.

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