Orange County woman suing Trump University is allowed to back out

A judge has granted an Orange County woman's request to step back from the class-action litigation she filed six years ago against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his now-defunct Trump University — with some caveats.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego found Tarla Makaeff "has undoubtedly suffered stress as a result of this litigation" and said in an order filed late Monday that there were reasonable grounds for her to pull out as a named class representative so close to trial.

Makaeff cited health problems, unforeseen publicity and Trump's public "barbs" at her character as reasons she wished to withdraw.

Curiel ruled that Makaeff would be able to remain in the lawsuit as an unnamed class member, potentially able to collect damages should Trump lose the case.

"Neither pundits, counsel, or the parties anticipated the media obsession that this case would create due to defendant Trump becoming a candidate for president of the United States," Curiel wrote. "It is also plain that with every additional candidates' debate and state primary, the attention given to the case has grown.

"While Makaeff's request to withdraw at the pre-trial stage is unusual, so is the unforeseen degree of attention this case has engendered."

The lawsuit accuses Trump of misleading students of his real-estate program, which cost $35,000 for an "elite" membership. The suit alleges Trump University falsely gave the impression that it was an accredited university, that students would be taught by real estate experts and mentors handpicked by Trump, and that students would get a year of mentoring.

Instead, the lawsuit says, the instructors were not experts, the program focused on "up-selling" techniques to rake in more money and the yearlong mentorship program fell flat.

Trump's lawyers argue that many students gave the program positive ratings and those who failed to find success in real estate did so by their own fault.

Makaeff had also requested that she be cleared from having to pay any attorneys' fees or costs for work Trump's lawyers did fighting her involvement in the case, and asked for an order barring Trump from being able to use her withdrawal as the basis for a future lawsuit against her. (Trump had previously filed a $1-million defamation lawsuit against her, which was later dismissed.)

The judge denied both requests. He left open the possibility that Makaeff might have to pay some opposing attorneys fees and costs — although that would be figured out after a trial, depending on how the case shakes out. Further, he said an order barring future litigation is an extreme remedy that should be rarely used, and it wasn't fitting in this case.

Makaeff has seven days to decide whether to accept the conditions and withdraw, or to continue with the lawsuit.

Both her attorneys and Trump's attorneys declined interview requests.

Trump's lawyers had argued against Makaeff's withdrawal, saying the bulk of their defense has been built around her.

There are three other named class representatives in the lawsuit, including Sonny Low, 74, of Chula Vista who would represent California class members. Still, with Makaeff gone, it would be like starting at square one, the lawyers argued.

The ruling did not excuse Makaeff from testifying in a trial if she is subpoenaed by Trump's lawyers, although the judge would not be able to compel her to appear if she is out of state. If she doesn't appear in the trial, her deposition testimony would be fair game.

Trump's lawyers had intended to call two witnesses to testify about Makaeff's positive experience with Trump University as well as her pattern of starting but failing to complete seminar programs, they said.

But, the judge said, given the legal issues that must be proven, her absence would not cripple Trump's ability to defend the case.

A trial date is expected to be set during the next hearing in the case, which is scheduled for May 6.

kristina.davis@sduntiontribune.com

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 25, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Plaintiff in Trump suit may quit - A judge grants her request, saying no one expected the `media obsession' in the case." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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