USA Justice First Look

Former ‘Apprentice’ contestant sues Trump. Will presidential immunity shield him?

Summer Zervos first accused Donald Trump of making unwanted advances in October. The then-presidential candidate dubbed her and other women who made similar claims 'liars.' Now, Ms. Zervos is suing for an apology and $2,914.

In this combination photo, President Trump (l.) listens during a March 13, 2017, meeting at the White House and Summer Zervos, a former contestant on 'The Apprentice' appears at a news conference in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, 2016, to announce claims that Trump made unwanted sexual contact with her at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2007.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
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President Trump’s lawyer said the president is immune while in office from the defamation claims brought by a former "Apprentice" contestant who accused him of sexual harassment. 

Summer Zervos, one of more than a dozen women who said before the November election that Mr. Trump made unwanted sexual advances to them, sued the president days before his inauguration. But in a legal filing to the New York State Supreme Court on Monday, the president’s private lawyers said they will formally ask for a dismissal or suspension of the litigation as it may distract the president from performing his duties. 

Trump's lawyers said the president denies "these unfounded accusations" and was prepared to show that they were "false, legally insufficient and made in a transparent politically-motivated attack." 

Ms. Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s reality show in 2006, said during an October news conference that Trump initiated unwanted sexual contact with her at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2007 – days after a decade-old "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women surfaced. Her lawsuit, filed in January, seeks an apology for defaming her character and $2,914.

Trump responded to her initial claim by tweeting at the time that Zervos’s charges were “100 percent fabricated and made-up” and “nonsense.” Dubbing her and other women who made similar claims “liars,” Trump also threatened to sue the accusers after the election. 

Noting that the allegations had been disputed by one of Zervos’s family members, Trump’s lawyers said in the Monday filings that the US Constitution immunizes Trump from being sued in state court while he is president. 

Zervos's attorneys argue that the precedent set by the US Supreme Court in the landmark 1997 Clinton v. Jones ruling makes clear that "no man is above the law, and that includes the president of the United States."

Paula Corbin Jones in 1994 filed a lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton while he was in office, alleging that he sexually harassed her while he was the governor of Arkansas. Lawyers for Mr. Clinton had sought a delay from the high court citing concerns that it would affect the presidential duties and “could trigger an avalanche of frivolous copycat suits seeking damages from the president,” as The Christian Science Monitor’s Warren Richey reported in 1997.

The court disagreed, saying the immunity granted by the Constitution does not apply to suits related to the president’s private actions. 

“The principal rationale for affording certain public servants immunity from suits for money damages arising out of their official acts is inapplicable to unofficial conduct. In cases involving prosecutors, legislators, and judges we have repeatedly explained that the immunity serves the public interest in enabling such officials to perform their designated functions effectively without fear that a particular decision may give rise to personal liability,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the 1997 opinion. 

According to an investigation by USA Today, at least 75 private lawsuits against Trump remained open when he assumed the office in January. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.