There is a lot to unpack from Judge Engoron’s 39-page opinion and order yesterday finding fraud by the Trump Organization and its principals. Due to the multiplicity of issues, I’m going to use a “frequently asked questions” format.
What is this case all about?
The New York State Attorney General filed a civil suit against the Trump Organizations, some of its related companies and individuals who were officers in those companies, including Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump. Ivanka Trump has been excluded as a defendant due to a prior appellate court decision.
The suit claims that all of the defendants “committed repeated and persistent fraud by preparing, certifying and submitting to lenders and insurers false and misleading Statements of Financial Condition,” all for the benefit of Donald Trump. Although there is a great deal of accounting wiggle room in determining the value of property, the Attorney General claims that the defendants’ overvaluations were “egregious.”
Did this opinion and order come after a trial?
No, we are still in the pretrial stage of this. There has previously been an injunction issued against the Trump Organization (upheld on appeal twice) to prevent it from transferring or otherwise disposing of property.
The current matter concerns Motions for Summary Judgment, one filed by the Attorney General and the other by the Trump Organization. A Motion for Summary Judgment usually claims that the facts are clear enough that it is not necessary to go through an entire trial to establish them. Defendants in their motion claimed that “there is nothing here” and that the suit should be dismissed. The Attorney General asked for Summary Judgment on only one of the claims, the one alleging fraud.
Why is this case going to a bench trial where the judge makes the decisions rather than by a jury?
Since Donald Trump is claiming in the media that this judge is biased against him, you would think he would be demanding a jury trial where 12 people would decide the case. There is a limited time after a case is filed in which to demand a jury trial. For reasons I am at a loss to explain, the defendants’ lawyers did not make a timely demand and the period to demand a jury trial has expired. Therefore, Judge Engeron is hearing the case because of a decision (or lack thereof) by the defendants.
Who prevailed in the Motions for Summary Judgment?
The Attorney General did. Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment was denied. The Court found that the defendants committed fraud, the Trump Organization’s certificate to exist in New York is revoked, defense attorneys were fined, and the only matter remaining on the first count of the lawsuit is how much the State of New York is going to be owed.
Why were the defendant’s attorneys each fined $7,500?
Judges hate it when lawyers do two things: continue to argue matters that have already been decided (here, TWICE on appeal) and make legal arguments that misquote cases.
The first analogy that comes to mind is when someone contends that the Bible says: “There is no God.” Though that is an accurate quote, the phrase preceding it says: “The fool has said in his heart.” Defendants did the exact same thing in quoting one of their supporting cases. Really, really bad form.
Isn’t pulling a corporation’s certificate to operate a truly severe action?
Yes, and it does not happen often. Judge Engoron noted that civil cases do not offer the same remedies as criminal ones, such as jail. When everything else has been tried and nothing else worked, only extreme measures are left.
Some parts of the judge’s opinion have led to some talking points by the defendants.
“How can there be fraud if we have never defaulted on a loan resulting from the financial statements?”
This is worth a Lawdromat article of its own. We usually think of money damages as restitution to the person harmed. If I am guilty of fraudulently obtaining $1,000 from you, I owe you that money back. This is restitution.
The Attorney General here is asking for up to $250 million under a completely different, but well established, legal principle called disgorgement. Disgorgement focuses on the gain to the wrongdoer rather than the loss to the victim. As a previous New York case said: “Disgorgement aims to deter wrongdoing by preventing the wrongdoer from retaining ill-gotten gains from fraudulent conduct. Accordingly, the remedy of disgorgement does not require a showing or allegation of losses to consumers or the public; the source of the ill-gotten gains is ‘immaterial’.”
It therefore makes no difference whether there was a default or not so long as there was fraudulent activity.
“Even wrong valuations aren’t fraudulent because there was a disclaimer about the accuracy of the numbers.”
From the opinion:
In his sworn deposition, Donald Trump said: “Well, they call it a ‘disclaimer.’ They call it a ‘worthless clause’ too because it makes the statement ‘worthless’.” Donald Trump goes on to say that “I have a clause in there that says, don’t believe the statement, go out and do your own work. This statement is ‘worthless;’ it means nothing.”
In finding that the “worthless” claim was indeed worthless (judge’s words, not mine), the judge cited a New York case finding that disclaimers are not effective when the facts are “peculiarly within the defendant’s knowledge.” The judge goes into much greater detail, but you get the point – disclaimers cannot be used to cover up misconduct that you create.
“Mar-a-Lago is not overvalued. If anything, it is UNDERvalued.”
Mar-a-Lago was one example the judge used to show defendants’ fraudulent use of overvaluation. It is contained in pages 25-27 of the opinion. It makes little sense to go into the weeds about the judge’s analysis here.
What is curious, however, is that the defendants’ current post-decision comments are not referencing (as far as I have seen) the court’s other detailed overvaluations: Seven Springs Estate in Westchester County, NY; Trump Park Avenue, 40 Wall Street, The Trump Tower Triplex, Aberdeen in Scotland; and U.S. golf clubs. These analyses cover twelve pages of the opinion.
What is coming next?
The Summary Judgment only dealt with Count I of the complaint. The remaining counts will require additional evidence at a trial that is scheduled to begin next month. You can also expect the defendants to appeal yesterday’s order. It is never wise to predict what an appellate court will decide, but decisions such as this one, exhaustively annotated, are seldom overturned.