SAN DIEGO — A judge on Thursday sharply questioned a challenge to a lawsuit settlement involving a $25 million payment by President Donald Trump to former customers of his now-defunct Trump University but stopped short of giving final approval to the deal that would end nearly seven years of litigation.
U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said the payment represented "an extraordinary amount" of money for thousands of former customers and he expressed doubts about a Florida woman's claim that she should be allowed to opt out of the settlement and sue the president on her own — a move that would likely scuttle the entire agreement.
Curiel said at the end of an hour-long hearing that he would rule at a later time on the final approval involving two lawsuits before him and a civil lawsuit by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The lawsuits contend that Trump University gave nationwide seminars that were like infomercials, constantly pressuring people to spend more and, in the end, failing to deliver on its promises.
The controversy dogged the Republican businessman throughout the campaign as rivals used his 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 for former customers said their clients would get at least 90 per cent of their money back under the deal, based on the roughly 3,730 claims submitted.
The attorneys waived their fees and Schneiderman agreed to forego $1.6 million of his $4 million portion of the settlement as a way to raise payments to individuals.
Curiel said the high payments weighed in favour of approval and he noted that only two of about 7,000 eligible class-action members objected to the terms.
He directed many of his questions to an attorney for Sherri Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, woman who said she should have been given more opportunity to opt out.
Attorneys for Trump and those suing him said the firm deadline to opt out was in November 2015 and that Simpson missed her chance. Simpson's attorney, Gary Friedman, argued that language in a 2015 opt-out notice suggested that former customers would have another opportunity.
Friedman called the language ambiguous and said constitutional rights to due process required more clarity.
"It's not constitutionally adequate notice," he told the judge.
Attorneys for the former customers noted that Simpson was the only one to express confusion. They appeared confident after the hearing that Curiel would rule in their favour .
"I don't want to predict, but he made a number of statements that were strongly in favour of the fairness of the deal," said Rachel Jensen, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Trump's attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, didn't address reporters as he left the courthouse.
When attorneys reached the deal shortly after Trump was elected, Curiel said he hoped it would be part of "a healing process that this country very sorely needs." A month later, he granted preliminary approval of the settlement.
His final approval would bring closure to the trio of lawsuits, the first of which was filed in 2010.
Trump 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.
The settlement was announced 10 days before a trial was set to begin, sparing Trump what would have been a major distraction. The trial would have been pinned on whether a jury believed Trump misled customers by calling the business a university when it wasn't an accredited school and by falsely advertising that he hand-picked instructors.
Elliot Spagat, The Associated Press