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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Trump U. Plaintiff Wants Out of Media Circus

SAN DIEGO (CN) - Both sides in the SoCal Trump University class action cited intense media scrutiny at a hearing to decide whether the lead plaintiff should be dismissed from the case.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel heard from lead plaintiff Tarla Makaeff's attorneys Rachel Jensen and Jason Forge as to why their client should be dismissed without prejudice in the six-year-long case.

Makaeff asked to withdraw as class representative Feb. 8, citing health problems, family loss and financial troubles in the years since she filed the class action in April 2010. She requested to retain her right to share in any class recovery by way of a settlement or trial if the court grants her motion for dismissal.

She sued Trump and Trump University claiming she had spent $60,000 for a classes and seminars she called little more than infomercials .

The class was certified in 2014 to include all people who purchased a Trump University three-day live workshop or program in California, New York and Florida, and have not received a full refund.

Jensen told the court the case has been fully vetted during the discovery process and does not depend on Makaeff to move forward. The other lead plaintiff representing the California class, Sonny Low, would see the case through the end, Jensen said.

But Curiel pointed out that in opposition papers Trump argued Makaeff should not be dismissed because much of the Republican front-runner's evidence relied on what she said during her deposition.

"They put most of their eggs in the Makaeff basket and didn't pursue Mr. Low the same way," Curiel said.

The case is the second-oldest on Curiel's docket.

Jensen said Trump is "trying to distract the court" and argued the plaintiffs, not Trump, would be prejudiced if the court grants Makaeff's dismissal.

Addressing the elephant in the room, Jensen also explained why Makaeff wanted to opt out now, on the eve of trial. Jensen said she approached Trump's attorneys last fall to discuss allowing Makaeff to be removed as lead plaintiff, and she says Trump attorney Daniel Petrocelli initially thought the billionaire would agree.

But Trump did not agree, leading Makaeff to file her motion to withdraw.

Makaeff has been berated publicly by Trump - most recently on the GOP debate stage, Jensen said.

"This motion involves humans and human emotions. She's now been derided and called out by name on the campaign trail, on Twitter and on the GOP stage. Ms. Makaeff has been put through too much," Jensen said.

Petrocelli disputed the plaintiffs in the class would be prejudiced, instead claiming Trump has been prejudiced "backwards and forwards" throughout the years-long litigation.

Makaeff remained a constant throughout the case, Petrocelli argued, calling her the pillar and centerpiece to the entire case and their defense.

"Ms. Makaeff's deposition, evidence and claims were the pillar to secure decisive court decisions in their favor. She is the centerpiece to this litigation. All that's left for her to do is to show up at trial and testify for one or two days," Petrocelli said.

Petrocelli pointed fingers at Makaeff, saying her claims for wanting to opt out over the media attention the case has received do not hold up because she started the publicity when she gave interviews after she filed the class action. Trump's counsel also speculated that recent court filings by the plaintiffs may have been handed over to the media, which has scrutinized and questioned Trump much more frequently about Trump University in recent weeks.

"I am very hopeful this will stop. We should not be litigating this case on a public debate forum. Everyone I know knows I'm involved in this case and based on what they read in the papers, they don't have anything nice to say," Petrocelli said.

Curiel pushed back when Petrocelli commented the defense can never get a fair trial when "the atmosphere is poisoned."

"There are also allegations that the poison is a two-way street," Curiel said.

Forge responded to Petrocelli by pointing out Trump moved to have Makaeff dismissed from the case through summary judgment, a move he said indicates Trump would not solely rely on Makaeff in his defense.

"All we're talking about is liability. She could be the greatest witness or the worst witness. Her withdrawal would not prejudice that effort. I'm not going to pound on the lectern to make my point," Forge said.

Petrocelli reiterated the motion for summary judgment was to throw out the entire case.

Both sides have agreed to defer the trial until after the Republican National Convention in July, where the presidential nomination for the GOP will be announced. But Petrocelli told the court if Trump gets the party's nomination, he would want the trial to start after the election in November.

Curiel is expected to issue a written order on the matter within a week.

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