Donald Trump took $19,000 of my hard-earned money. I was a student at the now-infamous Trump University, and Trump swindled me and thousands of other people like me. I believe he needs to acknowledge that his business practices were illegal and face a financial penalty that will deter future fraud. So I’m insisting on taking Trump to trial. And soon, a federal appellate court will decide whether I can do just that.
Prior to Trump U, I spent a great deal of time fighting for homeowners against unscrupulous real estate investors who were stealing people’s homes in Broward County, Florida, where I live. I was not making a lot of money, but the work was important. As the housing market crashed around us, people needed advocates to deter predatory conduct and guide them through financial crisis.
Still, I was a single mom raising an ambitious 10-year-old daughter who already dreamed of attending an Ivy League college and medical school. I was proud of her drive, but also worried about looming college expenses. I needed to boost my earning potential.
And so in 2010, I decided to train for a second career as a professional real estate investor. Trump University’s pitch seemed perfect for me. I already had a basic understanding of real estate. I wasn’t looking for a “get rich quick” program. I was willing to roll up my sleeves and learn the finer points of the business. I certainly was familiar with the wrong ways of doing real estate investing and wanted to learn the right way. I wanted mentoring and access to critical resources. And Donald Trump promised exactly that.
It didn’t take long to realize that Trump University was a classic con, preying on the hunger in people like me
Trump looked into the cameras and promised year-long mentorships with his “hand-picked” investing experts, trained in his real estate organization. These trained experts and mentors would impart his secrets in a “university” setting, through “Ivy League quality” instruction, along with access to valuable resources like financing, legal support, and a proprietary real estate listings database.
As a resident of South Florida, surrounded by his opulent properties, the Trump name represented an elite, professional real estate operation. I believed it when Donald Trump — the most famous real estate investor in the world — said I would get all this and more through his “Gold Elite” mentorship program.
The program started with a free seminar, where they upsold us on a $1,495 weekend seminar. And then the weekend seminar was all about selling us on the mentorship program. The tuition was steep: $17,500 apiece for two people to share a mentor. But the Trump U folks assured me I’d make it back in my very first transaction, with my dedicated mentor holding my hand. I decided to make the investment in my family’s future.
You may know how the story goes next: It was all a hoax. The “mentors” had not been “hand-picked” by Trump. They weren’t “trained” in his “system” — in fact, many had no real estate experience at all. There was no “university,” and it delivered none of the promised resources — no information that you couldn’t have just grabbed off the internet.
My assigned mentor, it turned out, had never even met Donald Trump. He’d never had any relation to the Trump real estate organization and had no familiarity with any Trump “system” or resources. And after some introductory chatting with me and another student, the mentor just disappeared. He didn’t answer calls or emails, and neither did Trump U.
It didn’t take long to realize that the whole program was a classic con, preying on the hunger in people like me to be more successful and maybe even turn our lives around. I felt humiliated. And at first, I blamed myself — like I should have known better. But I soon learned I wasn’t alone. Trump had defrauded thousands of other unwitting Trump University students as well, hauling in roughly $50 million and earning a D-rating with the Better Business Bureau.
And I learned that a class-action lawsuit had been filed in federal court in San Diego, before US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel. In 2011, I got in touch with the class-action lawyers and stayed in close contact over the succeeding years as the Trump U lawsuit barreled toward trial.
You may have heard that the class action settled and is over. Not quite.
In 2016, as Trump campaigned for president on his track record of success in business, I warned Americans of his deceptive and destructive business practices. I felt true concern for the well-being of Americans when he was elected, based on my own experience. And then, just days after the election, I was furious when I learned he had entered a settlement that allowed him to avoid a trial, and to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.
You may have heard that the class action settled and is over. Not quite. I’m fighting in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for my right to opt out of the settlement and take Donald Trump to trial. And I expect to win that appeal.
My mission is to take Trump to trial under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law and Florida laws against fraud and deceptive practices — claims that the district court has already greenlighted for trial. I want to go ahead with that trial to hold Trump accountable. This means full compensation for our losses, including triple damages, punitive damages, and seven years of interest — all of which would total roughly $170 million, for all the victims.
As Trump himself boasted in a November 2016 tweet, the settlement represents only “a small fraction of the potential award.”
I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
To be exact, the settlement provides for $23 million — roughly one-seventh of what Trump would have to pay after a trial. And worse yet, the settlement allows him to deny culpability. A boastful November tweet proves the point: “The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!”
The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The settlement, reached just days after the election, was also designed to ban “opt outs” and ensure there would never be a public trial exposing the evidence of Trump’s fraud. But the law gives each class member the right to opt out of a class action and seek our day in court. And in this case, we class members were promised, in a binding 2015 court notice, that we would have the right to opt out “from any settlement.” In other words: Each class member was entitled to say, “No, thanks,” to any settlement deal and to proceed to trial with his or her claim against Mr. Trump.
I understand why some folks simply want to settle, take a little money, and forget this ever happened. I need the money. I can only imagine where I would be if I had invested in a reputable training program seven years ago that actually paid off. My daughter is now 17 years old. I’m proud to say that she’s worked hard in school and gotten top grades. She’s getting ready to take the SAT and is looking at expensive colleges, expecting it to pay off down the road. I sure hope it does.
But we can’t just hope. That’s why I can’t go along with this settlement. Scams like Trump U victimize the vulnerable, and they need to be stopped. Whether it’s “for-profit college” scams, foreclosure frauds, or other schemes, ordinary people are vulnerable to predators like Donald Trump. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug with a settlement that doesn’t even require him to pay back what he took or admit guilt.
I want to exercise my right to “opt out” of the class-action settlement because the whole story, in all its gaudy detail, is something the public deserves to see in the light of day — the kind of light that a federal jury trial can provide. I want to see a federal jury verdict holding Trump liable. Or, if there is to be any settlement talk, I believe it’s appropriate to insist on a detailed admission of liability.
To make this happen, I’ve brought in a team of top-notch lawyers and am hoping that with some grassroots support, we’ll actually be able to go toe to toe with Trump’s army of lawyers.
I am not pursuing Donald Trump because he is president, but neither am I backing off just because he got elected president. No one is above the law, and in this case, the law is on my side. I intend to take Trump to trial.
Sherri B. Simpson is a mom, bankruptcy lawyer, daughter, citizen, and dog lover living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and she is the appellant in Simpson v. Trump University LLC and Donald J. Trump, Case No. 17-55635, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.