An appeals court in New York on Thursday rejected an attempt by President Trump to halt a defamation lawsuit filed by a former “Apprentice” contestant, the latest legal setback for Trump in the case.
The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, rebuffed Trump’s appeal on the same day the New York attorney general filed a lawsuit against him, accusing the president of “persistently illegal conduct” at his charitable foundation.
The court’s decision marks the third time this year that a judge or court in New York has blocked Trump’s efforts to stymie the lawsuit filed by Summer Zervos, who during the 2016 presidential campaign accused him of sexual harassment. Trump has denied her accusations, calling Zervos and all of the other women who made accusations against him “liars,” prompting her lawsuit early last year.
This string of legal stumbles leaves open the possibility that Trump could be deposed in the case. A judge last week set a deadline of January — two years after the suit was filed — for Zervos and Trump to sit for depositions. The courts have also allowed attorneys to move forward in gathering evidence.
Those arguments have not found much traction. In March, New York Supreme Court Justice Jennifer G. Schecter ruled that the Zervos lawsuit could proceed, bluntly writing, “No one is above the law.” Last month, another appeals court in New York denied Trump’s request to stay proceedings in the case. The New York Court of Appeals denied the appeal Thursday and also dismissed a motion to stay the case.
Trump’s attorneys said the latest court decision was procedural and argued that the larger issues they have raised — including whether a sitting president can be sued in state court — were not answered.
“The New York State Court of Appeals’ decision today was on purely procedural grounds — that the order appealed from was not within that court’s jurisdiction because it was not the final order in the case,” Kasowitz Benson Torres, the firm representing Trump, said in a statement. “The Court of Appeals did not address the merits of the issue at stake here (an issue first raised by the U.S. Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones) — namely, that, under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, state courts do not have jurisdiction over a sitting President.”
It was not immediately clear whether Trump had any other appeals pending or what his next legal step would be in the case, and his attorneys declined to respond to questions on both fronts.
David Ferstendig, an expert on New York civil procedure, described Thursday’s ruling as a “technical dismissal.” Ferstendig echoed the statement from Trump’s attorneys in saying the appeals court’s ruling did not focus on the merits of their arguments, but he said the practical result is the same: The trial court case should go forward.
The U.S. Supreme Court rarely hears appeals from the highest state court, Ferstendig said, adding, “I do not see how that would be successful here.”
Zervos’s legal team, meanwhile, praised the appeals court’s decision.
“This is now the third time the courts have rejected [Trump’s] effort to block the progress of this case,” Mariann Wang, Zervos’s attorney, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing the discovery process and exposing the truth.”
Maria Glover, a professor of civil procedure at Georgetown Law, said the president’s attorneys have tried to take advantage of New York’s unusually liberal appeals rules.
“The courts aren’t buying their argument,” she said. The case, she said, raises arcane aspects of state law, but Thursday’s ruling limits options for the president going forward.
While other lawsuits against the president have garnered more media attention — including those filed by Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star — the Zervos case has lingered for more than a year despite Trump’s efforts to stop or delay the proceedings.
Last week, Schecter, the same justice who ruled that the case could move forward, set some deadlines in the case, including one stating that Trump and Zervos must both be deposed by the end of January.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said the deadlines meant those depositions must be completed by that time unless the New York Supreme Court or a higher court rules otherwise.