Did Trump lawyers flub by failing to request jury trial in civil fraud case?
Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom before the start of his civil business fraud trial Oct. 4 at the New York Supreme Court in New York. Photo by Mary Altaffer via the Associated Press.
Former President Donald Trump has told reporters that it was “very unfair” that he didn’t have a jury trial in the civil fraud case alleging that he inflated the value of his properties in statements to insurers and banks.
Trump’s lawyers never requested a jury trial, however, after New York Attorney General Letitia James indicated that she was seeking trial before a judge. But was Trump entitled to a jury trial? The issue isn’t clear-cut, Law.com and Snopes.com report.
Trump went on trial this week on remaining issues in the case after the trial judge, Justice Arthur F. Engoron, ruled that Trump and his two oldest sons are liable for misrepresentations in the financial statements.
In a statement published by MSNBC, Trump lawyer Alina Habba said the case was filed under a consumer protection statute that denies the right to a jury, and “there was never an option to choose a jury trial.” The New York Times made a similar point in an Oct. 2 story.
But some lawyers say the issue could have been litigated.
The law at issue, Section 63(12) of the New York Executive Law, allows the New York attorney general to sue businesses or people for engaging in “persistent and repeated business fraud.” The law doesn’t ban jury trials, but precedent bars jury trials when damages sought are equitable in nature, Law.com and Snopes.com explain.
James’ lawsuit sought equitable relief, including a ban on Trump working as an officer or a director in any New York corporation for five years. James’ suit also seeks disgorgement of financial benefits obtained as a result of the wrongdoing, estimated at $250 million.
James’ suit describes disgorgement as an equitable remedy, but some lawyers say there is an argument that the amount of disgorgement is a severe penalty amounting to a legal action for damages, entitling the defendant to a jury.
“Trying to bar someone from the right to operate a corporation, I would call that equitable relief,” said New York lawyer Paul Golden in an interview with Law.com. “But with disgorgement, that’s less clear to me … if disgorgement would be considered legal damages or equitable relief.”
To get a ruling on the issue, Trump’s lawyers could have filed a jury demand and then litigated their right to one, according to Law.com and Snopes.com.