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The final months of the Trump University consumer fraud case were anything but routine. A divisive presidential campaign put the case, which was first filed back in 2010, under a spotlight. Public attention became even more pronounced when then-candidate Donald Trump—a party in the suit— took public aim at the presiding judge’s cultural heritage as a supposed source of bias.
But through it all, the plaintiffs lawyers, led by a team from Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, guided their clients—former Trump University participants alleging they were ripped off to the tune of thousands of dollars—to what U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel called an “extraordinary” eve-of-trial settlement.
The $25 million deal, which was approved by Curiel on March 31, could allow thousands of class members to recoup more than 90 percent of their alleged losses. And what makes the case even more extraordinary is that the plaintiffs lawyers won’t take a cut and diminish that amount. They have agreed to represent the class pro bono and waive their legal fees—even after roughly seven years of tooth-and-nail litigation. Those fees could have amounted to millions of dollars.
“This was an opportunity for us to send a more positive message and we didn’t want to be an obstacle to resolving the case,” said Jason Forge, one of the lead plaintiffs lawyers. “We didn’t feel good recovering our money before all the class members did.”
Forge and Rachel Jensen, also a lead plaintiffs lawyer in the case, said the Trump University case was a hard-fought litigation battle even from its earliest days in 2010.
“It’s tough sledding any time you engage in any litigation against President Trump and his people,” said Forge. “In this case, there was just never a time—including the day before the case settled—that I would have bet money that the case was going to settle.”
Jensen was on the case from its inception, while Forge came on board later—he joined Robbins Geller in 2012 after serving as a federal prosecutor. In addition to Robbins Geller, plaintiffs lawyers from Zeldes Haeggquist & Eck also played a role in the case.
The suit accused Trump University and Donald Trump of misleading people into paying as much as $35,000 for Trump University seminars. The plaintiffs alleged they were promised instructors hand-picked by Trump and that the for-profit school was accredited, when in fact neither was true.
“The primary lesson Trump University teaches its students is how to spend more money by buying more Trump seminars,” plaintiffs lawyers wrote in a 2012 amended complaint.
The case wore on for nearly seven years, with Trump and his lawyers strongly denying any wrongdoing. And while there was plenty of wrangling in court during the first several years, the case received heightened attention as Trump’s presidential campaign picked up steam in 2015 and 2016. Trump set off flurries of media focus, calling Curiel a “hater” and “hostile judge,” and making statements critical of his rulings and a suggestion that the judge, who was born in Indiana, might be biased because of his Mexican-American heritage.
The out-of-court attention had a big impact on the proceedings, according to Forge, who said even logistics, such as scheduling depositions and setting a trial date, were complicated by Trump’s continued presence on the campaign trail. But in spite of the media circus outside the courtroom, Jensen said the plaintiffs team strove to make sure politics had no place inside the courtroom. They worked hard to keep politics separate.
“The first case was filed in 2010, long before anyone could have predicted Donald Trump’s metamorphosis from mogul to president,” said Jensen. “Even after Trump’s meteoric rise in the primaries, we tried to keep the cases as apolitical as possible so that the focus could remain where it rightfully should—on the merits of our plaintiffs’ claims.”
The two sides did eventually secure a trial date for late November, but before that day arrived, Trump pulled out an electoral victory and became the president-elect. It wasn’t long before Trump’s side changed its tone in the litigation.
For months, the defense team had appeared to be gearing up to go through with a trial—one indication coming in 2015, when Trump tapped Daniel Petrocelli, head of the trial practice at O’Melveny & Myers, to take over the defense. But during a Nov. 10 hearing, Petrocelli indicated in court that Trump, by then the president-elect, might be open to a settlement. From there, the two sides entered mediation and announced a deal on Nov. 18. The deal came 10 days after Trump was elected president and 10 days before the case was slated to go to trial.
But as with other aspects of the case, the settlement wasn’t exactly standard fare. Beyond the unprecedented size of the class members’ recovery, the plaintiffs lawyers decided to put their own financial interests aside and declined to collect fees. In his final approval order, Curiel described that as an “exceptional decision” by the plaintiffs team.
“It was a case where we could make a big difference by serving pro bono,” said Jensen. “So our firm chose to put the lives of the class members and the interests of our country before our fees.”
Scott Flaherty covers the business of law with a special focus on plaintiffs firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sflaherty18.
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