Jason Forge, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd partner ()
One day after President-elect Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits over Trump University, he posted on Twitter that the payment was a “small fraction of the potential award.” But Jason Forge, one of three plaintiffs attorneys at San Diego’s Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd who was involved in the settlement talks, said the amount each class member can expect to receive is unprecedented. But he also acknowledged that the litigation faced more uncertainties, particularly after Trump’s win on Nov. 8.
The settlement resolved two class actions in California, one of which was set for trial on Monday in San Diego, and another brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, alleging Trump University made fraudulent claims about its real estate seminars.
Q: Litigation Daily named Trump’s lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli of O’Melveny & Myers, Litigator of the Week for his work on this settlement. How did the plaintiffs come out on top in this deal?
Forge: To be able to say to every class member, “You’ll get more than half your money back, and maybe more,” is, if not unprecedented, pretty darn close. In many respects, it was a very easy decision for us once we started talking about real money. And the total damages in that case were about $17 million. The settlement case for a higher amount of money than the total damages was for us something that, looking at it from the best interest of class members, we couldn’t credibly say no to.
Q: But it wasn’t just about this trial, right?
Forge: We had a case where damages were decertified … every individual class member would have to bring their own proceeding in order to recover any money. Even if we won a verdict at this trial, which was just to establish liability, that would be step one in what would be an extremely lengthy litigation process. Literally, we could have been talking a decade.
The idea of all these people jumping on board and bringing independent legal proceedings to obtain damages from him and subjecting themselves to discovery and deposed in separate trial proceedings — it was daunting to say the least.
Q: Trump is famous for saying he doesn’t settle. What do you think changed his mind?
Forge: It’s hard to place his priorities before he became president-elect with priorities once he became president-elect. In the primaries and the general election, he effectively used the mantra, “There’s no such thing as bad press.” Once he’s president-elect, the rules of engagement changed. There was no question the statements that he made about hand-picking these instructors were flat-out false. I think he was fully prepared to fight this thing, but I do think he saw some benefits to putting it behind him that didn’t necessarily exist before.
I don’t think any sitting president would want to kick off his or her administration by defending a fraud case.
Q: Your firm has been handling this case since Day 1. Was it hard for all the lawyers at your firm to come to agreement on whether to settle and at what terms?
Forge: It’s always hard. I’m sure it was hard on the defense side. Both sides were ready to try the case. Both sides believed in their case.
Q: You waived your attorney fees. Why?
Forge: This is not your typical class action case. With Trump becoming president and complications that that posed, it really compromised our ability to get for them a real recovery as quickly as we would like. So we just felt it really became much more of a public service, the case did, and consistent with that we thought it would be more important to not take fees.
Q: Did you make that decision because Trump’s lawyers wouldn’t agree to more money?
Forge: They were perfectly amenable to there being attorney fees. They didn’t have a problem with that. We actually didn’t talk numbers with them throughout the day. The judge wasn’t sharing with either side where the other one was. It was never put to them we’ve got to put in an extra $5 million for fees. It wasn’t like it was $25 million but none of that can go to attorney fees. That was just a decision we made on our own.
Q: How much did your firm spend on this case, which was filed in 2010?
Forge: I don’t have that figure, but we definitely put a lot of time into it.
Q: In the end, are you disappointed that you couldn’t make your case before a jury?
Forge: Of course. From a personal perspective, I’m very disappointed. Obviously, both sides saw risks in going to trial and thought the benefits of settlement outweighed those.
It was an unusual situation, no question about that. It was hard-fought litigation on both sides. It was a very difficult trial to walk away from. But there was no doubt in my mind this was the best decision for the class. No doubt.