CHICAGO — Donald Trump boldly proclaimed last week to a federal jury that he had the right to do whatever he wanted at his luxury Chicago high-rise hotel — in spite of a federal lawsuit he faced from an elderly Evanston, Ill., woman.
It could have been chalked up as typical Trump trash talk.
On Thursday, though, the jury in Chicago agreed with the billionaire celebrity, awarding not a single dollar to the octogenarian financial planner who maintained the luxury hotel unfairly backed off key incentives that led her to buy two condos in 2006.
One juror later told the Chicago Tribune that a clause deep in the condo documents gave Trump the legal right to make the changes.
“He is the owner,” juror David Burgert said in a telephone interview. “He could change the (plan).”
Though 87-year-old Jacqueline Goldberg lost $500,000 plus interest in the deal, her lawyer had asked the jury for $6 million in damages, proclaiming that Trump’s yanking of the incentives left her feeling betrayed and conned.
Minutes after the verdict, a victorious Trump said in a telephone interview that Goldberg lost because her attorney brought no evidence.
“I’m rich and I’m from New York — that’s all they had,” Trump, 66, said from New York.
Though Trump had been sued before over the removal of the financial incentives, Goldberg’s lawsuit marked the first to go to trial and force Trump to travel to a Chicago courtroom to answer questions.
Goldberg’s attorney, Shelly Kulwin, acknowledged in closing arguments Wednesday that his case was largely circumstantial. He argued that the deal offered to Goldberg — including an ownership stake and share in revenue from ballrooms and meeting rooms — was intended to lure her and other investors in and then pulled to protect Trump’s financial interest in the project. Trump’s knowledge of the hotel business made such a major revision unlikely unless that was the plan all along, he maintained.
On the witness stand, Goldberg told the jury of her humble beginnings and how she worked her way through college earning two degrees. After her husband sold a business, earning considerable wealth, she handled the family investments.
After the verdict, Goldberg told reporters she felt good about “exposing” Trump in spite of the jury’s decision.
“I sued for fraud,” she said. “And that’s how I feel about him.”
During the trial, Trump’s attorneys had focused on the clause in the condo documents that gave the hotel the right to make any changes to the development.
“I had the right to do what I did,” Trump said Thursday in his interview — sentiments he shared on the stand.
Stephen Novack, Trump’s attorney, stressed the importance of the clause in his closing argument, telling the jury that Goldberg should have understood in 2006 that there could be major revisions because other concept changes had already been reflected in property reports she had viewed. Goldberg, who had previously invested in real estate, could certainly grasp that more could change, Novack said.
In her testimony, Goldberg acknowledged she was aware of the clause, but she told the jury that she understood such a measure typically covered only revisions dictated by construction or code changes.
Goldberg had a 10-day window to walk away from the deal in 2006 after she signed up for two condos, but the incentives weren’t removed until 2008.
Burgert, the juror, said jurors were initially split but over the course of about five hours of deliberations concluded that Goldberg was savvy enough to understand the clause.
” … She knew she could kind of back away from the deal, but she went ahead anyway,” said Burgert, 36. “It was a hard decision (for the jury) to make, but everything that was in the document … it was in Trump’s favor. Again, he is the owner and he could change the (plan).”
Burgert said said the jury worked hard to set aside both Trump’s celebrity personality and Goldberg’s age, despite her lawyers playing up Goldberg’s senior.
“I feel sympathy for Mrs. Goldberg, but we’ve got to follow the law,” added juror Leo Pinela, 51, of Melrose Park.
Novack, Trump’s lawyer, credited the jurors with seeing through an effort by Goldberg’s lawyer to turn the legal fight into a New York versus Chicago battle involving the world’s most famous businessman.
“We were all confident, but nobody ever knows for sure how a jury is going to decide it,” he said. “There’s no doubt justice was done. It was done in the best possible way. We had eight jurors — all of whom are Chicagoans — none of whom bought into this ‘Let’s hate N.Y.’ And that’s how justice is done.”
After the verdict, Goldberg chose not to respond to any of the names she had been called in or out of court. Trump had accused her of using “the age card.”
But she expressed no regrets for bringing the lawsuit.
“I had to do it,” she said. “I had to try.”