HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — As President Trump questions whether men accused of sexual misconduct are being denied “due process,” a restaurant owner here is awaiting word on whether her own legal claim against Trump will be allowed to move forward.
Summer Zervos filed a defamation lawsuit a year ago in which she claims that Trump groped and sexually assaulted her. He called Zervos and other female accusers “liars.” Trump’s lawyers have fought to keep the case from going to trial, dismissing it as “totally meritless” and arguing that a state court has no jurisdiction over a sitting president. A New York judge is expected to rule any day on whether it should proceed.
Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice,” is the only one of about a dozen women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct shortly before the 2016 presidential election to have brought legal action. Her complaint details phone calls and meetings that could be used to verify — or refute — her allegations, and her attorneys could call other accusers to the stand to describe Trump’s behavior. Zervos declined to be interviewed.
Trump has denied Zervos’s account of an alleged December 2007 encounter at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “To be clear, I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago,” he said after she made her accusation.
The White House referred questions about Trump’s whereabouts at the time to his private lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who did not respond to a request for comment. He has previously dismissed the claim as politically motivated.
In her complaint, Zervos says she asked to meet with Trump that month at Trump Tower in New York, seeing him as a “potential employer.” Zervos claims Trump dubbed her his “OC angel” — referring to her California home county, Orange County — and invited her to meet him for dinner in Los Angeles. The suit details phone calls from Trump to make arrangements.
The complaint says Trump’s security guard escorted Zervos to a hotel bungalow, where Trump showed little interest in dining out: Instead, the complaint alleges, he kissed and groped her, suggested they watch “telly-telly,” and led her to the bedroom, where “he began to press his genitals against her.”
When Zervos rejected Trump, he became “all business,” she alleges. She said he ordered a club sandwich from room service, then doled out financial advice. He suggested that Zervos let her mortgage “go into default,” the complaint says: “He said that it was a mini version of what he does.”
They met briefly the next day at his Rancho Palos Verdes golf course, the complaint alleges. Soon after, Zervos claims, the general manager offered her a position at “half the salary” she was seeking.
A job with the Trump Organization would have been a change from the challenges of her parents’ restaurant work in a beach town. Court records show they ran into financial problems when Zervos was a teenager.
“They went bankrupt at the same time that Donald Trump did,” Zervos told the Orange County Register in a 2006 interview about her reality TV role. “He came out a little better than we did.”
In 2005, Zervos joined her brother, Shado, in purchasing a $900,000 house in a new development, according to property records. That same year, on an overcast Saturday morning, Zervos answered NBC’s casting call for the fifth season of “The Apprentice.”
The first of 17 nationwide tryouts was held five minutes from Sunny’s, the diner owned by Zervos’s family, where a Trump impersonator cajoled applicants hoping to compete for a $250,000, one-year contract with Trump’s company.
Dan Simon, then a data company salesman, said that he met Zervos in line and that they were interviewed by show producer Mark Burnett, who asked provocative questions.
“Should prostitution be legalized?” Simon recalled Burnett asking. Burnett seemed to zero in on Zervos as she gave answers that Simon remembered being “liberal as liberal can be.”
Selection for the show did not guarantee a big payoff. Scott Salyers, the supervising casting producer, said contestants received modest stipends.
When the show began, on the tarmac near Trump’s jet, Zervos joined a team assigned to sell Sam’s Club memberships.
Trump later turned on her in a boardroom meeting when Zervos spoke up to defend her team leader. “Why should you interrupt me when I’m knocking the hell out of him?” Trump demanded. “By interrupting me, what are you doing to yourself?”
“I’m being truthful,” Zervos said, “and I’ll always be truthful.”
“How stupid is that, right?” Trump asked.
“It’s not stupid,” she retorted. “If I stay, I want to stay on the truth,” she said, prompting Trump’s famous response:
“You know what, Summer? You’re fired!”
Zervos was the first contestant banished to a New Jersey apartment complex to wait until shooting ended. She then returned to Sunny’s, her family’s diner.
According to her complaint, Zervos contacted Trump again in 2009, 2010 and 2016.
Her suit is not about fame, nor was her accusation politically motivated, her attorneys have said. She is asking for $2,914 in economic losses as well as unspecified emotional damages.
Zervos’s critics point to an email the Trump campaign posted, in which a cousin of hers who worked at Sunny’s speculates that “Summer’s actions are nothing more than an attempt to regain the spotlight at Mr. Trump’s expense.” The cousin, John Barry, did not return phone calls.
The Zervos family’s struggles continued, according to public records. Property records indicate that Deutsche Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings in 2009 against Zervos and her brother. Sunny’s moved out of a downtown location in 2010 to a more modest mall. Zervos’s father and brother did not respond to messages.
Her family and close friends referred inquiries to Gloria Allred, her attorney. “Summer and her family are not doing any interviews,” Allred wrote.
Some residents here who have known or worked with Zervos for years are following her confrontation with Trump. They say she often referred to her Trump connection after returning from the filming to work at Sunny’s.
“She was a small-town girl, [and] all of a sudden people knew who she is,” recalled Amanda Hesser, a former restaurant server.
Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.