Trump lawyer seeks to force porn star's lawsuit into arbitration


Stephanie Clifford, also known by her stage name Stormy Daniels, sued last month to get out of the non-disclosure agreement she signed in October 2016.
Stephanie Clifford, also known by her stage name Stormy Daniels, sued last month to get out of the non-disclosure agreement she signed in October 2016. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Donald Trump and a company affiliated with him filed court papers on Monday (April 2) seeking to force the pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford to raise her disputes through private arbitration, not lawsuits.

Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, was paid US$130,000 (S$170,397) to keep quiet about her claims of an affair with Trump. She sued last month to get out of the non-disclosure agreement she signed in October 2016, alleging that it was void because Trump had never signed it. That raised the prospect of further embarrassing revelations for a president who has already been rocked by Clifford's public statements.

In a motion filed on Monday, Essential Consultants - a shell company established by Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen to pay Clifford - asked the US District Court for the Central District of California to compel Clifford "to arbitrate any and all disputes arising" from the confidentiality agreement she signed. In a separate document filed on the same day, Trump formally joined the motion.

Arbitration would be beneficial to Trump because it is a private process in which a third party resolves a legal dispute after all parties agree to be bound by the decision. A lawsuit, by contrast, could create a public spectacle, bringing embarrassing information to light through the discovery process and trial.

Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for Clifford, said on Monday that they would "vigorously oppose the motion by Mr Trump and Mr Cohen to have this case decided in a secret arbitration, in a private conference room, purposely hidden from the American public."

"This is a democracy, and this matter should be decided in an open court of law owned by the people," Avenatti said.

Trump and his lawyers have been trying vigorously to avoid further public statements by Clifford, particularly since she said in February that she believed that Cohen had violated the agreement and that she, as a result, was no longer bound by it. Cohen secretly obtained a restraining order late that month to prevent her from speaking.

And last month, Trump's legal team filed a motion asking to move the case from state court to federal court, which may have been motivated by a desire to keep the case in arbitration: The Federal Arbitration Act favours arbitration in certain types of disputes, and federal courts have generally applied that law more strictly than state courts.

Also on Monday, America Media Inc. answered a lawsuit from the former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also claims to have had an affair with Trump. McDougal alleged in her lawsuit that the company, which publishes The National Enquirer, misled her when it made a US$150,000 deal to squelch her story, buying the exclusive rights to it during the campaign but never publishing anything.

American Media asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to throw McDougal's lawsuit out based on an "anti-SLAPP" statute, which many states have enacted to halt frivolous lawsuits devised to "chill the valid exercise of the constitutional right of free speech and petition."

In effect, the company's lawyers are arguing that McDougal is challenging its "constitutional and contractual right to exercise its editorial discretion not to publish."

The company said in a statement on Monday that it hoped McDougal would stay on as "a valued contributor" and that it still sought "an amicable resolution" with her.

A lawyer for McDougal, Peter Stris, wrote on Twitter, "The tabloid went to great lengths to silence her and others, and they are now attempting to silence her again with the absurd claim that their own free speech was violated."

McDougal's lawsuit alleges that American Media engaged her in the agreement in order to influence the 2016 election.

The watchdog group Common Cause has filed complaints with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission charging that the US$150,000 payment - which also bought the rights to columns, blog posts and cover shoots with McDougal - was an illegal, in-kind contribution to Trump's campaign.