Court rejects immunity for Trump in state lawsuit
A New York appellate court ruled Thursday that President Trump must face a defamation lawsuit filed by former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, one of about a dozen women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct shortly before the 2016 election.
The ruling means that attorneys for Zervos may have the opportunity to question Trump under oath in the coming months. The current schedule sets a deadline of June 28 for depositions, with document and electronic discovery expected to be concluded by the end of July. Trump has called Zervos and the other women who made accusations against him “liars,” prompting Zervos to file a lawsuit in 2017.
Trump’s attorneys have tried unsuccessfully to block the suit, arguing that the president is immune from such lawsuits in state court.
In its ruling Thursday, a panel of New York appellate judges rejected that argument, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Clinton v. Jones, which established that presidents can be sued while in office for unofficial acts.
Two of the five judges on the panel dissented in part.
“Contrary to defendant’s contention, Clinton v Jones did not suggest that its reasoning would not apply to state court actions,” the judges said in their majority decision. “It merely identified a potential constitutional concern. Notwithstanding that concern, this Court should not be deterred from holding that a state court can exercise jurisdiction over the President as a defendant in a civil lawsuit.”
Zervos’ legal team hailed the ruling as an affirmation that Trump “is not above the law.”
“The case has proceeded in the trial court and discovery continues,” Mariann Wang, Zervos’s attorney, said in a statement. “We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth about Defendant’s unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies.”
Trump’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, said that he disagreed with the ruling and that the president plans to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, “which we expect will agree with the dissent.”
“We believe,” Kasowitz said in a statement, “that the well-reasoned dissenting opinion by 2 of the 5 justices, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Clinton v. Jones case, is correct in concluding that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars state courts from hearing cases against the President while he or she is in office.”
Zervos has said Trump forcibly kissed and groped her during a December 2007 encounter at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
The ruling in Zervos’ case also hurts Trump’s cause in a separate New York lawsuit – this one involving his troubled charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Last year, the New York attorney general sued Trump, alleging “persistently illegal conduct” at the charity he has run for 31 years.
Among other allegations, the attorney general said Trump had used his charity’s money to pay legal settlements for his for-profit businesses, to buy expensive portraits of himself, and to serve as an extension of his political campaign in 2016, making donations arranged by campaign staffers.
That suit is also filed in New York state court, and Trump’s attorneys had argued that his status as president should exempt him from state suits. In a recent ruling, the judge in the Trump Foundation case said that if the Zervos ruling were to go in Trump’s favor, she would also dismiss the charity lawsuit.
The foundation case likely will proceed.
Neither New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, nor a Trump Foundation attorney immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. Many of the allegations about misconduct at the Trump Foundation were first reported by The Washington Post in 2016.
Also on Thursday, James entered a new legal filing with what she said were “undisputed” facts about the Trump Foundation. Among them: James said that the foundation’s board, which was legally required to oversee the charity’s spending, had not met since 1999.