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Trump fails again in effort to duck 'Apprentice' defamation suit

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 3/15/2019 By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

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A New York appellate court on Thursday rejected President Donald Trump's attempt to block the defamation suit of an Orange County, Calif., woman who says he lied during the 2016 campaign about sexually assaulting her at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The court's 3-to-2 ruling enables Summer Zervos, a former contestant on "The Apprentice," to press forward toward a Manhattan trial of her allegation that Trump defamed her by branding her a liar in the weeks before he was elected president.

Trump's legal team argued that the U.S. Constitution immunizes him from state court lawsuits arising from his private conduct before he took office.

The court disagreed, opening the way for Trump to be deposed about what Zervos says was a sexual assault in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2007.

"Should the trial court find it necessary to require the president to testify, it could allow him to do so by videotape, as has been the custom in recent proceedings involving sitting presidents," Justice Dianne T. Renwick wrote in the majority opinion.

Zervos attorney Mariann Wang said she was pleased the court affirmed Trump was "not above the law."

"We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth about (Trump's) unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies," she said.

Trump attorney Marc E. Kasowitz said the president will appeal the decision to the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

"We respectfully disagree with the majority decision in the Appellate Division," he said.

a person standing in front of a window: Summer Zervos, who appeared on Season 5 of the reality show, 'The Apprentice' said that Trump kissed her on the lips several times when she went to his office in 2007, during a news conference on October 14, 2016, with attorney Gloria Allred in Los Angeles. Appeals court judges rule Zervos' defamation case against Trump can go forward. © Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS Summer Zervos, who appeared on Season 5 of the reality show, 'The Apprentice' said that Trump kissed her on the lips several times when she went to his office in 2007, during a news conference on October 14, 2016, with attorney Gloria Allred in Los Angeles. Appeals court judges rule Zervos' defamation case against Trump can go forward. Kasowitz said he agreed with a dissenting opinion by Justice Angela M. Mazzarelli that state courts are barred from hearing cases against a sitting president.

Zervos was one of more than a dozen women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct in the weeks before the November 2016 election.

She says she arrived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for dinner with Trump one night in 2007 and was escorted to his bungalow, where he aggressively kissed her open-mouthed and placed a hand on her breast.

After she pushed him away and expressed her disinterest, she says, he pressed his genitals against her and tried to kiss her again.

In October 2016, a week after the release of an "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump saying women let him grab them by the crotch because he was famous, Zervos, a Republican, said at a news conference: "You do not have the right to treat women as sexual objects just because you are a star."

Trump denied meeting her at the hotel or greeting her inappropriately. He repeatedly called her a liar. She sued him just before his January 2017 inauguration.

Thursday's court ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of President Bill Clinton's attempt to block the federal lawsuit that Paula Jones filed against him for sexual harassment.

The New York court disagreed with Trump's argument that the Jones ruling did not apply to a state court, saying "though he is tasked with significant responsibilities, the president is still a person, and he is not above the law."

The president is immune from lawsuits for actions taken in his official capacity, the court acknowledged, but not for his private conduct before taking office.

Trump's lawyers also argued that it would violate the U.S. Constitution if a state court were allowed to hold a president in contempt. The New York justices dismissed the scenario as hypothetical.

State courts "are fully aware that they should not compel the president to take acts or refrain from taking acts in his official capacity or otherwise prevent him from executing the responsibilities of the presidency," Renwick wrote.

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