Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, a settlement was reached in the class-action lawsuit over one of the billionaire’s most high-profile business disasters: Trump University.
Sherri Simpson didn’t want to accept the settlement. “I wanted to take it to trial,” she remembers.
Simpson is a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who specializes in bankruptcy and foreclosures. She’s also one of the students who signed up for Trump University, a service that promised education in real estate and asset management. It was 2010, after the market crashed, and Simpson saw an opportunity with real estate approaching record-low prices.
“I had clients surrendering their homes, giving them up and just walking away from them,” she remembers. “One after another after another.”
She knew there were countless real estate programs out there, but became aware of Trump University when opening her mail one day.
“Trump University solicited people in South Florida, including me, by letter,” she says about an invitation to attend a free event on real estate investing. “At the free event, they upsold you to a three-day weekend event where they promised all kinds of things. ‘You’re going to learn how to be a real estate investor, be (Trump’s) next entrepreneur’ and all that stuff. And that was $1,495.”
Trump himself never made an appearance at these events, but his image was everywhere. “They had big seven-foot cut-outs of him,” recalls Simpson. “There was a video of him welcoming us.”
It probably didn’t look much different from a promotional video for Trump University that is still alive on YouTube. In the clip, Trump talks about the leadership team behind the program.
“We’re going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific,” Trump says to the camera. “Terrific people, terrific brains, successful. We’re going to have the best of the best.”
He continues: “Honestly, if you don’t learn from them, if you don’t learn from me, if you don’t learn from the people that we’re going to be putting forward — and these are people that are going to be handpicked by me — then you’re just not going to make it in terms of success.”
The word “success” or “successful” is actually mentioned by Trump six times in the short video. To drive the point home, Trump University isn’t just portrayed as a real estate program. It’s compared to the best business schools in the country.
“We’re going to teach you better than the business schools are going to teach you,” Trump promised. “And I went to the best business school. We’re going to teach you better. It’s going to be a shorter process. It’s not going to involve years and years of your life. It’s going to be less expensive and I think it’s going to be a better education — and it’s going to be what you need to know.”
Simpson figured if anyone knew about real estate, it was Donald Trump. And she was sold on the thought of working with experts “handpicked” by the famous business mogul.
“He had to have the best lawyers,” she figured. “He’ll have the best forms, the best legal information, the best contracts, the best documents… Boy was I wrong.”
Trump University pushed three levels of the program during that three-day weekend event — Bronze Elite, Silver Elite and best of all, Gold Elite. “It was always upsell,” Simpson remembers. “Everything was upsell, upsell, upsell.”
She choose Gold Elite, mainly because it promised the most hands-on assistance, including a mentor who would provide beginning-to-end guidance during the student’s first real estate transaction. “The mentor was supposed to teach us and work with us one-on-one,” says Simpson. “That’s why it was so much money.”
She didn’t receive the guidance expected and Simpson quickly soured on Trump University. It only got worse when she checked out the online materials, which included outdated training videos produced before the crash that were no longer relevant. “The market was totally different,” she remembers.
The written materials were even worse, including documents that were no better than what you could get for free online. “They were horrible! As a lawyer, I looked at these things and said you’ve got to be kidding me. Here I was expecting really high-end, high-class documents and it was garbage.”
Resources for securing funding and access to properties were also promised, but never materialized. Simpson felt betrayed by Trump University — and by Donald Trump himself. “I was started to get really upset over the whole fact that it was really not what was promised,” she says. “I thought he was an upstanding guy and really wanted to teach us.”
She didn’t have too much time to dwell on it. Within a few months after Simpson signed on, Trump University closed. When it was all said and done, she personally invested around $20,000 into the program.
About a year later, Simpson found out about a class-action lawsuit in California against Trump University. She contacted the legal team and expressed interest in pursuing litigation on behalf of Florida as well.
“I had been involved for years with real estate fraud. I litigated real estate deals. I knew what was right and wrong — and what was good or bad,” she says.
As an attorney herself, Simpson was actively involved in the case, which quickly drew renewed media interest after Trump declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election. While on a campaign stop in Arkansas that year, Trump addressed the civil case, calling it a “small deal — very small.” He also claimed most of the students wrote assessments saying they “loved the school” and the education received.
“I just wanted to give you a little bit of the parameters because you keep hearing about Trump University so, it’s a civil case,” he told the crowd. “It’s a sleazebag law firm that does these class action cases – they’re very routine – and I will win the case at the end. I just didn’t want to be forced to settle and I could have settled it before I did this and I knew somebody would try and to use it for publicity, but I believe I can turn it around just to show you how dishonest these people are. And that’s the case.”
However, the Trump Organization did settle the case just days after the presidential election — for $25 million. Simpson says she was caught off guard about the announcement: “I heard about the settlement along with everybody else on the news.”
She felt the case deserved to go to trial, whether Trump was president or not. The evidence was in Trump’s videotaped deposition, where she says it was obvious the billionaire had no role in selecting his “handpicked” employees at Trump University.
“He never met one of them,” says Simpson. “He had no idea who any of those people were.”
Simpson legally objected to the settlement, effectively putting the payouts on hold while she pursued a trial against the newly elected president. However, on February 6, 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected her arguments. The case was finally over.
Simpson ended up with $17,000 for her share of the settlement. “I got at least the majority (of the $20,000 investment), which was good,” she says with the sensibility of a lawyer. But she’s quick to point out she was seeking treble damages — or three times the on-paper expenses — which would cover interest, time, suffering and the fact that the students never learned any valuable real estate skills as promised.
Today, Simpson seems at peace with matter. She actually counts herself among the lucky ones who joined Trump University. “I got a call from one guy who paid $65,000, but threw out all his receipts,” she says. “He didn’t save anything, so he couldn’t prove his losses.”
More disturbing to her is that Trump got elected telling voters exactly what he told students at Trump University — that he would surround himself with only the best and everything would turn out great.
Does she worry about the country? “To the point I get nauseous,” she responds.
Simpson says her animosity toward Trump isn’t based in politics. At one point during our interview, she detours into current events, saying “I would love universal healthcare, but how are we going to pay for it?” — not quite standard talking points for an extreme left-winger. (For the record, she describes herself as a moderate liberal.)
Simpson is troubled by the polarizing nature of today’s political climate, but says she hasn’t lost any friends over the Trump fiasco. Dating is another story. She was seeing someone who turned out to be a staunch right-wing conservative. They made it to three dates.
“When he found out who I was — the one who fought Trump — he drove me to my car, kicked me out and sped off,” she laughs.
Fortunately, her legal battle with Trump hasn’t affected her business as an attorney, although friends have suggested she include the story on her firm’s website. “Eh, it’s probably not a good idea,” says Simpson. “But then again, I’m in South Florida. It would probably be okay.”