Judge grants woman's request to quit Trump University suit

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2016 9:50 PM

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A judge has granted a Southern California yoga instructor's request to withdraw from a federal class-action lawsuit against Trump University after her attorneys said the Republican presidential front-runner and his lawyers put her "through the wringer."

Tarla Makaeff's withdrawal from the case would leave three other plaintiffs as the six-year-old case nears trial in San Diego.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel ruling published late Monday allows Trump's attorneys to do an additional deposition of another plaintiff, Sonny Low, and recover some attorney costs to be determined later. The plaintiffs have a week to decide whether to accept the terms.

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 May 6 and Trump appears on a list of defense witnesses who may testify.

Trump's attorneys argued the lawsuit should have been dismissed if Makaeff were allowed to withdraw, arguing that their trial strategy centered on her. They will have three weeks to depose Low, a retired U.S. State Department officer from San Diego who paid $25,000 for a "Trump Elite" mentorship program in 2009.

Makaeff, who didn't appear at a hearing on March 11 to consider her request, has suffered health problems that were not disclosed in court or to Trump's attorneys. The judge agreed with her attorneys that she never anticipated being scrutinized under the glare of a presidential campaign.

"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. It is also plain that with every additional candidates' debate and state primary, the attention given to the case has grown," Curiel wrote in a 25-page ruling.

Trump called Makaeff a "horrible, horrible witness" at a rally in Arkansas last month. On social media, his one-word characterization of her request to withdraw — "Disgraceful!" — was retweeted more than 3,200 times.

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 claimed 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 didn't imagine she would be subjected to criticism under the glare of a presidential campaign, her attorneys said. She was deposed four times for a total of nearly 16 hours and suffered anxiety about money after Trump sued her for defamation, seeking $1 million.

Makaeff eventually prevailed on the defamation claim, and a judge ordered Trump last year 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 physical and mental health.

"Understandably, Makaeff wants her life back without living in fear of being disparaged by Trump on national television," her attorneys wrote in a court filing.

Makaeff's personal circumstances elicited no sympathy from Trump's attorneys.

"Litigation is hard," they wrote. "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.