Donald Trump could face new legal action over his controversial Trump University venture, after a new suit was filed in federal court.
In November, days after he won the presidency, Trump settled three class action fraud lawsuits over Trump University, for $25m. More than 6,000 people were listed in the suits, claiming they were lured into paying up to $35,000 to learn the secrets of Trump’s business success.
Now, one member of the class action lawsuits, Sherri Simpson, has filed an appeal against the settlement, claiming she was not allowed to exercise her right to "opt out” of the multimillion-dollar deal.
If the ninth circuit court of appeals – one of two courts that ruled against Trump’s travel ban in June – decides in her favor, Simpson intends to sue the president independently for fraud, which she hopes could see him give evidence before a jury.
"I believed in a jury trial,” Simpson told the Guardian. "It looked like we had such a strong case for trial after seven years of litigation.”
Simpson, a bankruptcy attorney who took courses at Trump University in 2010, had planned to sue on her own before learning of, and joining, one of the three class action suits.
In her appeal, her lawyers allege that she was told she would be able to be excluded from a settlement if she wished. Instead, Simpson says, she was not given forewarning of the $25m settlement with the president-elect – only learning of it from the media – and was not given a chance to withdraw.
"We’re asking them to rule that there is no authority to approve a settlement in this case, because it did not allow the class members to opt out – to say yes or no to the settlement,” said Gary B Friedman, representing Simpson with fellow attorney Deepak Gupta.
Trump University, a for-profit company that was not an accredited university or college, launched in 2005 with Trump promising that "students” would be mentored by hand-picked staff.
A Trump University "playbook” released in May 2016 showed that one of the pledges to enrollees read: "Only doers get rich. I know that in these three packed days, you will learn everything to make a million dollars within the next 12 months.”
The fraud lawsuits alleged that students learnt nothing of the sort, despite being encouraged to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend weekend seminars.
Simpson, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said she received a leaflet through the mail in 2010 and eventually ended up spending $19,000 on tuition.
"What I found from the very beginning was that it was just all upsell,” she said. "It was all a scam. It turned out it was a lot of cheerleading for Donald Trump and his successes.”
Friedman said the ninth circuit had granted "expedited treatment” of Simpson’s appeal, with a verdict expected in late summer or early fall. If the court rules that Simpson should not have been included in the settlement, she will be free to pursue her own lawsuit against Trump. She has said she will not settle out of court.
The $25m payout reached in 2016 was hailed as a victory by lawyers including New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who brought one of the three lawsuits involved. It is unclear what would happen to the 6,000 people involved in the settlement if Simpson were to win her appeal.
Trump University – and the associated lawsuits – became an issue in the Republican primaries and the presidential campaign, with opponents releasing ads which featured some disgruntled former students.
In May 2016 a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, made public more than 400 "playbooks”, which showed how staff were instructed to get people to accrue credit card debt to pay for tuition fees, and ordered to target financial weaknesses in a bid to sell further courses.
Trump, who launched his campaign by accusing Mexico of sending "rapists” to the US, attacked Curiel over the release.
"I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump,” Trump said at a rally. "A hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel. And he is not doing the right thing ... [He] happens to be, we believe, Mexican.”
Curiel was born in Indiana.
A spokesperson for Trump did not return a request for comment.