SAN DIEGO (AP) — Attorneys for Donald Trump and a Southern California yoga instructor dueled in court Friday over whether the yoga instructor should be allowed to withdraw from a federal class-action lawsuit that says Trump University fleeced students with unfilled promises to teach secrets of success in real estate.
After about an hour of arguments, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he would rule in about a week. If Tarla Makaeff is allowed to withdraw, three plaintiffs would remain in the six-year-old case as it nears trial.
Makaeff, who didn't appear at the hearing, has suffered health problems that were not disclosed in court or to Trump's attorneys. Rachel Jensen, one of her attorneys, noted that Makaeff has been derided during the presidential campaign.
"I don't think anyone could have anticipated a year ago where we would find ourselves," Jensen said.
Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for Trump, said Makaeff was the centerpiece of his trial strategy and that he would have to completely overhaul his approach if she withdrew. Makaeff, who was deposed four times for a total of nearly 16 hours, made statements that "not only undermine but refute the basic claims in the case," he said.
The skirmish in one of three lawsuits against Trump University came as the stage was being set for trial, possibly in August. A trial date has not been set, but a final pretrial conference is scheduled for May 6 and Trump appears on a list of defense witnesses who may testify.
On Friday, the judge asked both sides about the wisdom of holding a trial between the Republican convention and the general election. Petrocelli said he would oppose an August trial if Trump is the party nominee, while Jason Forge, an attorney for the plaintiffs, suggested a June date.
"This will be a zoo if it were to go to trial," said Petrocelli, who worked on the wrongful-death civil suit against O. J. Simpson and the criminal case against Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling.
The lawsuit says Trump University, which no longer operates and wasn't accredited as a school, gave seminars and classes across the country that were like infomericals, constantly pressuring students to buy more and, in the end, failing on its promise to teach them success in real estate.
Trump has repeatedly pointed to a 98 percent satisfaction rate on internal surveys. But the lawsuit says students were asked to rate the product when they believed they still had more instruction to come and were reluctant to openly criticize their teachers on surveys that were not anonymous.
Makaeff attended a three-day "Fast Track to Foreclosure" workshop for $1,495 in 2008 and later enrolled in the "Trump Gold Elite" program for $34,995, spending a total of about $60,000 on seminars in a year, her attorneys say. In April 2010, she sued in San Diego federal court.
Makaeff eventually prevailed against Trump in a defamation claim against her in 2013, and a judge ordered Trump to pay $798,779 in her legal fees.
In a statement to the court, she said she was grieving her mother's death and worried about the toll of a trial on her health.
Trump called her a "horrible, horrible witness" at a rally in Arkansas last month. On social media this week, his one-word characterization of her request to withdraw — "Disgraceful!" — was retweeted more than 3,200 times.
Her personal circumstances have elicited no sympathy from Trump's attorneys.
"Litigation is hard," they wrote in a brief for Friday's hearing. "Witnesses are compelled all the time to testify in civil and criminal trials across the country, whether young or old, rich or poor, healthy or ill."
Trump's attorneys wrote that Makaeff gave the instruction high marks in surveys and "simply did not put in the time, work, and perseverance necessary to achieve success."
Makaeff's attorneys say the yoga instructor was unaware of Trump's "false advertising" when she completed the surveys and didn't want to risk alienating anyone who might advance her career.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Makaeff on the surveys when considering Trump's defamation claim in 2013, saying, "As the recent Ponzi-scheme scandals involving onetime financial luminaries like Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford demonstrate, victims of con artists often sing the praises of their victimizers until the moment they realize they have been fleeced."
Reminded of the Madoff comparison during a recent debate, Trump said, "Give me a break. You know what? Let's see what happens in court."