By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO — A judge on Friday approved an agreement for President Donald Trump to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits over his now-defunct Trump University, ending nearly seven years of legal battles with customers who claimed they were misled by failed promises to teach success in real estate.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego settles two class-action lawsuits and a civil lawsuit by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Trump had vowed never to settle but said after the election that he didn’t have time for a trial, even though he believed he would have prevailed. Under terms of the settlement, he admits no wrongdoing.
Neither the White House nor Trump’s attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment on the ruling.
The lawsuits alleged that Trump University gave nationwide seminars that were like infomercials, constantly pressuring people to spend more and, in the end, failing to deliver.
The controversy dogged the Republican businessman throughout the campaign as rivals used Trump’s depositions and extensive documents filed in the lawsuits to portray him as dishonest and deceitful.
Trump brought more attention by repeatedly assailing Curiel, insinuating that the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage exposed a bias.
Attorneys say former customers will get at least 90 percent of their money back, based on the roughly 3,730 claims submitted. The attorneys waived their fees, and Schneiderman contributed $1.6 million of his $4 million portion of the settlement to the customers, raising their payouts.
The Democratic New York attorney general said Friday’s ruling “will provide relief — and hopefully much-needed closure — to the victims of Donald Trump’s fraudulent university.”
“Trump University’s victims waited years for compensation, while President Trump refused to settle and fought us every step of the way — until his stunning reversal last fall,” he said.
Attorneys for the former customers had no immediate comment but praised the settlement after an hourlong hearing Thursday before Curiel, saying it would allow customers to retire debt-free and overcome other financial obstacles.
“We have many plaintiffs whose lives will be changed,” attorney Rachel Jensen said.
Curiel’s six-page ruling does not detail his thinking, but he said Thursday that the high payments weighed in favor of approval. He noted that only two of about 7,000 eligible class-action members objected to the terms.
The judge rejected a request by a Florida woman who argued that she should have been given more opportunity to opt out of the settlement. If he had agreed, the prospect of more litigation would have likely derailed the deal.
Clearing that final hurdle brought closure to the trio of lawsuits, the first of which was filed in April 2010.
When attorneys reached a deal shortly after Trump’s election, Curiel said he hoped it would be part of “a healing process that this country very sorely needs.” A month later, he granted it preliminary approval.
The agreement came 10 days before a trial was set to begin, sparing Trump what would have been a major distraction during his transition to the White House.
Court documents unsealed last year revealed strategies for enticing people to enroll even if they couldn’t afford it. The documents outlined how employees should guide people through “the roller coaster of emotions” after they express interest and tells employees to be “very aggressive during these conversations in order to push them out of their comfort zones.”
Transcripts of about 10 hours of Trump depositions provided additional material to rivals, though Curiel denied a request to release video that would have likely been used in campaign attack ads. Trump acknowledged in the depositions that he played on people’s fantasies, and he could not recall names of his employees despite advertising that he hand-picked them.