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Ex-'Apprentice' Contestant's Defamation Claim Against Trump May Proceed, NY Judge Rules

[caption id="attachment_13528" align="aligncenter" width="620"] Summer Zervos, center, with attorneys Mariann Meier Wang, left, and Gloria Allred, as they take questions from reporters following a December hearing in Zervos' defamation suit against President Donald Trump. Photo: Andrew Denney/NYLJ[/caption] President Donald Trump is not immune from a defamation suit filed in state court in Manhattan by a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who says Trump groped her more than a decade ago, a New York Supreme Court justice has ruled. Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Schecter denied Trump’s motion to dismiss the suit by Summer Zervos, who alleges in a lawsuit filed just after his inauguration that the president defamed her by stating publicly that Zervos lied about the alleged attacks, or to stay the action until Trump leaves office. The justice said there is nothing in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution that precludes a sitting president from being haled into state court for conduct that is not related to his federal duties. “No one is above the law,” Schecter said in the 18-page ruling. “It is settled that the president of the United States has no immunity and is ‘subject to the laws’ for purely private act.” Schecter’s ruling builds on case law established in a landmark 1997 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that President Bill Clinton was not immune from a sexual harassment suit filed in federal court by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who said Clinton propositioned her while he was serving as governor of Arkansas. But the high court’s ruling left open the question of whether or not a sitting president can be sued in state court for unofficial acts. Zervos was a contestant on “The Apprentice” in 2005 and, after she was dispatched from the show with Trump’s signature “You’re Fired” line, continued to seek out Trump for advice and job opportunities, court papers state. Zervos said that, in 2007, Trump subjected her to unwanted kissing during a meeting at his office. The two met again that year at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Zervos said Trump subjected her to more unwanted sexual contact in his bungalow. Zervos remained quiet about the attacks but decided to break her silence about the attacks in October 2016, in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump could be heard engaging in a lewd discussion about women, including forms of sexual assault. The day that Zervos came forward with her allegations, Trump issued a public statement in which he said that he had never met Zervos in a hotel room, and also denied allegations of sexual misconduct against him at a rally in North Carolina. He subsequently denied sexual misconduct allegations against him in several public appearances and on Twitter. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign, total fabrication,” Trump said at an Oct. 22, 2016, rally in Pennsylvania, according to court papers. Marc Kasowitz of Kasowitz Benson Torres, who is representing Trump in the case, said in December at oral arguments for the motion to dismiss that Trump’s statements on the issue amounted to overheated campaign rhetoric—and thus cannot be construed as defamatory—and that none of the statements explicitly named Zervos. But Schecter said that Trump’s statements could be proven true or false and that, because his statements were delivered on Twitter—a “preferred means of communication often used by defendant,” the judge noted—and in speeches, the statements cannot be characterized simply as heated rhetoric or hyperbole. Mariann Wang of Cuti Hecker Wang, who represents Zervos, said of the judge’s decision that “rule of law and sound reason have prevailed today.” “We are grateful for the opportunity to prove that defendant falsely branded Ms. Zervos a phony for telling the truth about his unwanted sexual groping,” Wang said in an email. Zervos’ legal team also includes Gloria Allred and Nathan Goldberg of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg and Cuti Hecker partner Eric Hecker. In a statement forwarded by a spokeswoman for the firm, Kasowitz, a longtime lawyer for the Trump family, said that he will appeal Schecter’s decision and will seek a stay of the case until a final determination is reached. "We disagree with this decision, which is wrong as a matter of constitutional law,” Kasowitz said. Schecter’s ruling comes on the same day that Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had an extramarital affair with Trump, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, to release her from an agreement with the publication in which she was paid $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story.