Trump Can Be Sued for Defamation by Summer Zervos, ‘Apprentice’ Contestant, Court Rules

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A New York appeals court on Thursday rejected President Trump’s argument that the Constitution makes him immune from state lawsuits, clearing the way for a defamation suit from a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who has said Mr. Trump groped her.

The five-judge panel in Manhattan ruled that Summer Zervos, who competed on Mr. Trump’s reality game show, could go forward with her lawsuit, which she filed after Mr. Trump said her claims that he had groped and kissed her against her will were lies.

The 3-to-2 ruling upholds a lower-court decision from a year ago that similarly concluded the president could be sued in state court while in office for actions unrelated to his official duties.

“The current sitting president attempts to shield himself from consequences for his alleged unofficial misconduct by relying upon the constitutional protection of the presidency,” Justice Dianne T. Renwick wrote for the majority. “We reject defendant President Trump’s argument.”

Ms. Zervos and nine other women claimed during the presidential campaign in 2016 that Mr. Trump had engaged in sexual misconduct.

Ms. Zervos said Mr. Trump twice forced himself on her in 2007: in a job interview in Trump Tower in Manhattan, and during a meeting in Los Angeles.

Mr. Trump responded to the claims by calling the women liars and re-tweeting a picture of Ms. Zervos with the sentence, “This is all yet another hoax.” Ms. Zervos sued for defamation in New York State Supreme Court, saying the allegations were true and his comments had damaged her reputation.

Lawyers for the president sought to have the case dismissed based on what is known as the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which prohibits states from interfering with the federal government’s exercise of its powers.

The State Supreme Court appellate panel said the president’s lawyers had misinterpreted the clause.

“The supremacy clause was never intended to deprive a state court of its authority to decide cases and controversies under the state’s Constitution,” Justice Renwick wrote. “Read plainly, the supremacy clause confers ‘supreme’ status on federal laws, not on the status of a federal official.”

Mariann Wang, Ms. Zervos’s lawyer, said in a statement that she was pleased that an appeals court had affirmed that the president is “not above the law.”

“We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth,” she said.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, had argued unsuccessfully that being subject to a lawsuit in state court could impede the president from performing his duties. He vowed to fight the ruling and to take the argument to the state Court of Appeals.

“We respectfully disagree with the majority decision in the Appellate Division,” Mr. Kasowitz said in a statement.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Peter Tom and Justice Angela M. Mazzarelli agreed with the president’s stance that the suit could interfere with his ability to do his job. “The court holds the power to direct him to respond to discovery demands, to sit for a deposition and to appear before it,” Justice Mazzarelli wrote.

The majority’s ruling relied in part on precedent set in the case of Paula Jones vs. President Bill Clinton, who in 1994 sued the then-sitting president for sexual harassment that she alleged occurred when he was governor of Arkansas.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that sitting presidents do not have immunity from federal suits concerning their unofficial actions, but it did not address whether the same held true for lawsuits filed in state courts.

In October, a federal judge in California dismissed a defamation suit brought by Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress who has said she had an affair with Mr. Trump. In that case, she argued that the president had defamed her by calling her claims false. The court ruled that Mr. Trump was engaging in lawfully protected free speech.

Follow Sarah Maslin Nir on Twitter: @SarahMaslinNir

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