The Trump University Case – The Real Issues

Matter of People ex rel. Schneiderman v Trump Entrepreneur Initiative. LLC, ___ AD 3d ___, 2016 NY Slip Op 01430 [1st Dept., 2016]

Let’s resist the impulse to snarkiness, and stick to the legal issues. Yes, this is the one involving serious allegations of fraud against Donald Trump in one of his business ventures. The proceeding was commenced in August, 2013, well before Trump became an actual, and now a leading, presidential candidate, and so any claim of a political witch-hunt must go by the board. A detailed rundown of the Attorney General’s allegations is unnecessary for our discussion, and in any event has been done better than I could by Eric Turkewitz on his NY Personal Injury Blog.

Whether those claims can be substantiated is not the issue here. The actual issue here, once the nature of the action is properly understood, is in fact a rather simple limitations question of which period governs: When the Attorney General sues over a fraud, under the authority of Executive Law § 63(12), does the claim involve a “liability, penalty or forfeiture created or imposed by statute” (CPLR 213 (2), 3-year period), or one of the six-year periods of CPLR 214? This is resolved by well-established principles, as will be seen.

As a threshold matter, however, the Appellate Division reconsidered one of its recent precedents, found it to be erroneous, and overruled it. We’ll look at that aspect of the case first, and then look directly at the limitations issue.

All we need know of the petition is that the Attorney General alleged numerous fraudulent and improper practices against Donald Trump individually and several of his namesake business entities. The fraud allegations were framed in separate causes of action: first under the Attorney General’s statutory authority pursuant to Executive Law § 63(12), and as common-law fraud. Common-law fraud, of course, carries a six-year limitations period, and there is no issue as to the timeliness of those claims.

The issues concern the Executive Law cause of action. First, whether it is properly pleaded as an independent cause of action, and assuming that it is, whether it carries a limitations period different from the common-law fraud claims.

Supreme Court dismissed the cause of action, finding on constraint of the Appellate Division decision in People v Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., 109 AD3d 445 [1st Dept., 2013] that it may not be pleaded as an independent cause of action. We must start, therefore, with the language of Executive Law § 63(12), which states:

“12. Whenever any person shall engage in repeated fraudulent or illegal acts or otherwise demonstrate persistent fraud or illegality in the carrying on, conducting or transaction of business, the attorney general may apply . . . for an order enjoining the continuance of such business activity or of any fraudulent or illegal acts, directing restitution and damages . . . and the court may award the relief applied for or so much thereof as it may deem proper. The word “fraud” or “fraudulent” as used herein shall include any device, scheme or artifice to defraud and any deception, misrepresentation, concealment, suppression, false pretense, false promise or unconscionable contractual provisions.”

In State v Cortelle, 38 N.Y.2d 83 [1975], the Attorney General sought to enjoin the respondents from a scheme of obtaining title to distressed real property under false pretenses, and to dissolve the corporate entities through which they acted. The issue was the same as ultimately arose in Trump, whether the cause of action was one “created or imposed by statute,” subject to a three-year limitations period under CPLR 214(2), or whether it was subject to the six-year catch-all provision of CPLR 213. The Court of Appeals found that the State’s right to enjoin such conduct and to dissolve the corporate entities extended back to the common-law. That it had since been codified by statute did not mean that it was “created or imposed” by statute. CPLR 214(2) therefore did not apply, and the applicable period was the six-year catch-all.

The Court’s opinion includes this language:

“The [Executive Law and BCL] did not ‘make’ unlawful the alleged fraudulent practices, but only provided standing in the Attorney-General to seek redress and additional remedies for recognized wrongs which pre-existed the statutes. Statutory provisions which provide only additional remedies or standing do not create or impose new obligations. . . .That the statutes authorizing the Attorney-General to bring this action appear to be or are new to the law is not dispositive. As applied to the allegations in this case, they create no new claims but only provide particular remedies and standing in a public officer to seek redress on behalf of the State and others. Moreover, the kind of wrong the Attorney-General seeks to redress is not a new one to the decisional law but a now rather old and common type of fraud.” State v Cortelle Corp., 38 NY2d 83, 85-86 [1975]

This said nothing about whether the Attorney General could bring an independent Executive Law claim, but concerned only whether the specific claim had been “created or imposed” by the Executive Law.

In the 2013 Charles Schwab decision, the First Department considered claims of securities fraud brought by the Attorney General, including a cause of action under Executive Law § 63(12). The First Department dismissed the Executive Law cause of action, citing Cortelle for the proposition that the Executive Law “does not create independent claims”. Cortelle, as we have seen, does not support that proposition.

Of course, just because an independent Executive Law § 63(12) cause of action isn’t precluded by Cortelle doesn’t mean that it is viable. The viability of such a cause is shown by other Appellate Division cases, which have allowed for independent fraud claims under § 63(12), including at least one holding that the language of the statute requires proof of neither scienter nor reliance, further supporting the conclusion that the Attorney General is not limited to common-law fraud claims. (People v American Motor Club, 179 AD2d 277, 283 [1st Dept., 1992], app. dism. 80 NY2d 893 [1992]; see also People v Greenberg, 95 A.D.3d 474, 483 [1st Dept., 2012], aff’d 21 N.Y.3d 439 [2013])

The First Department thus concluded that the decision in Charles Schwab had been based on a misreading of Cortelle, and was erroneous. Seeing no reason to allow the error to languish in the law, furnishing precedent for further erroneous decisions, the First Department overruled it. The Attorney General may, indeed, claim allege independent fraud causes of action under both the Executive Law and common-law fraud.

Finally addressing the limitations issue directly, the First Department found that the rationale of Cortelle was controlling. That is, Executive Law § 63(12) neither creates nor imposes a new liability or penalty for fraudulent conduct, but simply gives the Attorney General standing to sue. The claim is therefore not subject to the three-year period of CPLR 214(2), but rather to the six-year residual period of CPLR 213(1). The first cause of action was therefore timely.

A similar situation arose in 2014, in regard to the attorney-deceit statute, Judiciary Law §487. In Melcher v Greenberg Traurig, the Court of Appeals held that while the roots of this claim originated in the First Statute of Westminster (in 1275!) the claim entered New York law as part of our common law, at the creation of the country in 1776, when both English statutory and common law were adopted by common consent. Thus, what appears to be a statutory cause of action really isn’t, and the three-year period doesn’t control. As with the Executive Law cause of action in Trump, the controlling period is the six-year residual period.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: