Trump fails to end 'Apprentice' contestant's defamation lawsuit

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state appeals court rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to dismiss a defamation lawsuit by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on his television show “The Apprentice,” or delay it until after he leaves the White House.

Summer Zervos listens as her attorney Gloria Allred speaks during a news conference announcing the filing of a lawsuit against President-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In a 3-2 decision on Thursday, the Appellate Division in Manhattan said the U.S. Constitution did not strip state courts of power to decide cases arising under state constitutions, even if they involved sitting presidents.

Despite suggesting he embodies the executive branch and has significant responsibilities, “the President is still a person, and he is not above the law,” Justice Dianne Renwick wrote.

The dissenting judges said the lawsuit would interfere with Trump’s job as president, and should wait until he left office.

Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said Trump will appeal to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, “which we expect will agree with the dissent.”

The decision affirmed a lower court ruling from last March.

Zervos’ lawyers are hoping to question Trump under oath about whether he defamed her by calling her a liar after she accused him of sexual misconduct.

“We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth about defendant’s unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies,” Zervos’ lawyer Mariann Wang said.

Trump has denied Zervos’ claims and called her case politically motivated. Several other women have also accused Trump of improper sexual conduct.

Zervos, an “Apprentice” contestant in 2005, accused Trump of kissing her against her will at a 2007 meeting in New York, and later groping her at a Beverly Hills hotel.

She came forward in October 2016, the month before Trump was elected, after an “Access Hollywood” recording showed Trump speaking in vulgar terms about women. Trump also republished on Twitter a post calling Zervos’ accusations a “hoax.”

The appeals court called Zervos’ case “materially indistinguishable” from former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones’s lawsuit accusing then-President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court let Jones’ case go forward. That paved the way for Clinton’s impeachment the following year.

Justice Angela Mazzarelli, one of Thursday’s dissenters, said the “all-consuming nature of the Presidency creates a constitutional barrier” against Zervos’ lawsuit.

All five justices found Zervos’ defamation claim legally sufficient, without ruling on its merits.

Trump also faced a defamation claim by adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit over a hush money agreement. That lawsuit was dismissed on March 7.

The case is Zervos v Trump, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, No. 7610.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Meredith Mazzilli