A federal judge indicated Friday that he would allow a lawsuit by former customers of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's now-defunct real estate program, Trump University, to move forward.
In a tentative oral ruling on a motion to dismiss the case, U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel said the plaintiffs had met the legal requirements to move forward and have a jury decide if Trump "participated in a scheme to defraud" people who signed up for the seminars — some at a cost of about $35,000.
A formal written ruling is expected to follow.
Trump's lawyers were seeking to convince Curiel to dismiss one of two class-action suits connected to the Trump University real estate training. Daniel Petrocelli has argued that while Trump was involved in drawing up the concept for the business and the materials, he left it to subordinates to implement the plans.
"He did not run Trump University," Petrocelli said Friday. He said that the fraud issue in the case revolved around the marketing materials used to promote it, and there was no evidence that Trump directed or had specific knowledge what "the marketing people running this company" were doing.
Plaintiffs lawyer Jason Forge countered that when questioned in a deposition, Trump had said he didn't know of any piece of the marketing materials that he did not personally approve.
The lawsuit at issue Friday was filed in 2013 under the civil racketeering law, or RICO. The plaintiffs say they were duped by advertising that said they would learn Trump's secrets from "hand-picked" instructors at an elite university. Trump owned 92% of the business and, the plaintiffs said, was closely involved in formulating the marketing materials and other aspects of the business pitch.
The suit could be costly for Trump since, under the civil RICO laws, plaintiffs who win can get three times the amount of damages awarded.
Petrocelli has said there's no evidence Trump had an intent to defraud students. He believed they were getting a quality product, based on the positive reviews students gave.
Petrocelli told Curiel that allowing the case to go forward under the racketeering law was a "gross overreach."
"Are we going to do a RICO case on 'hand-picked' and 'secrets'?" he asked. But Curiel was skeptical, noting that the evidence so far showed that Trump has "an ongoing role" in the marketing plan.
Trump ignited a controversy during a San Diego rally in May when he said Curiel was a Mexican who was biased against him because of the candidate's pledge to build a wall along the length of southwestern U.S. border and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants.
Curiel was born in Indiana, the son of parents who immigrated from Mexico.
Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.