Summer Zervos case: Court rules Apprentice contestant defamation lawsuit against Trump can proceed

A defamation case against Donald Trump filed by a former reality show contestant who said the president subjected her to unwanted kissing and groping in 2007 can proceed, a panel of New York judges ruled Thursday.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have long sought to halt the case brought by Summer Zervos, a California restaurateur who appeared in 2006 on Mr. Trump’s NBC reality show “The Apprentice.”  

Mr. Trump’s legal team had argued that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution prevents a sitting president of the United States from being sued in state court. A finding in Mr. Trump’s favor could have derailed at least two other cases in New York courts, including a wide-ranging probe into the Trump Organization by the state’s attorney general.

“We reject defendant President Trump’s argument,” wrote Associate Justice Dianne Renwick for the majority. “Instead, we find that the Supremacy Clause was never intended to deprive a state court of its authority to decide cases and controversies under the state’s constitution.”

Zervos was among more than a dozen women who came forward late in the 2016 presidential campaign to say that Mr. Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them. The candidate denied the claims, calling the women “liars.” But he singled out Zervos’ allegations, calling them a “hoax,” and “fabricated and made-up charges.” 

Zervos sued in 2017, saying Mr. Trump had hurt her reputation, harmed her business and caused threats to be made against her. In the suit, she demands that Mr. Trump apologize and retract his statements, and asks for unspecified damages.

In a statement to CBS News, Marc Kasowitz, the lead attorney for Mr. Trump, said he will appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The case could lead to more serious legal headaches for Mr. Trump, according to former New York State Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg.

One issue: Last June, another judge had ruled Mr. Trump could be deposed. 

“Any time you’re under oath there is information there that could come out and be turned over to law enforcement, and then, particularly with this president, there’s the risk of perjury,” said Bragg, who joined the New York Law School in January 2019 as a visiting law professor and co-director of the Racial Justice Project.

In addition, according to Bragg, other cases were stalled in anticipation of the Zervos decision, including one by the New York State Attorney General against the Donald J. Trump Foundation. In a June 2018 lawsuit, the Attorney General claimed the foundation was operated as a “shell corporation that functioned as a checkbook” for Mr. Trump, his campaign and businesses. In December, the nonprofit informed the state it would be shutting down. 

The judge in that case indicated in October she was waiting to rule on a motion to dismiss until after a decision in the Zervos case.

The Zervos case has already brought forth dozens of recorded depositions with Trump Organization figures as senior as Allen Weisselberg, the company’s CFO, who had been at Mr. Trump’s side for decades. 

Lawyers in another case against Mr. Trump may also received a boost. It involves protesters who sued following a violent 2015 altercation in the Bronx with Keith Schiller, who was Director of Security for the Trump Organization. In August 2018, that case’s judge ruled against Mr. Trump’s legal team, who argued the president couldn’t be a defendant in the case. The president’s team in that case brought up the pending Zervos decision in arguing against a subpoena.

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