By Kaitlyn McCormick
TRENTON, N.J. — During a contentious appellate court hearing Monday, a judge framed the Westminster Foundation’s position as Rider University “destroying Westminster’s soul to save Rider’s skin,” to which Rider’s attorney Angelo Stio responded, “We’re allowed to do that.”
The oral arguments were heard within the New Jersey Appellate Division of Superior Court in Trenton regarding a prior dismissal of a pair of years-long lawsuits to block Westminster Choir College’s [WCC] relocation to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus and the sale of the valuable land in Princeton that formerly housed the elite music school.
The arguments were combined into a single hearing on Monday at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex before Superior Court Appellate Judges Allison E. Accurso, Lisa Rose and Catherine I. Enright, nearly two years after the original appeal was filed.
Westminster Foundation’s attorney, Bruce Afran, argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, maintaining that the students, alumni and teachers had the right to request a court order blocking the move of WCC and requesting a reversal of the trial judge’s decision.
“Well that’s the problem,” Afran said in response to Judge Accurso’s asking who can enforce Rider’s obligations in the 1991 merger agreement. “If you take Rider’s position…no one can enforce…maybe the [New Jersey Attorney General] could step in, but we know from different cases that the [Attorney General] is not the final word, that private parties can differ from the [Attorney General]. So if you take Rider’s position, no one can enforce. Now that’s an untenable doctrine.”
In March 2020, Judge Robert Lougy of the Superior Court Chancery Division dismissed the lawsuits – one consisting of faculty, alumni and donors and the other current students. Rider argued in that case that, explicitly according to the 1991 agreement, third parties could not act as beneficiaries, therefore lacking legal standings to make claims.
Afran also discussed the “peculiar relationship” of alumni having higher involvement in the college than strictly monetary donation as well as the Princeton campus still remaining intact and in use part-time.
Attorney Stio from Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP argued on behalf of Rider.
Stio made the claim that there was no language in the Strong Taylor Deed, which supplied the acreage in Princeton in 1935, that required the school to be maintained in Princeton, asserting that Judge Lougy had made the correct decision in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims.
Stio also maintained that the litigation focus must remain on the decision making process, rather than the consequences, and that under the circumstances of the merger, Westminster was never a separate entity, as well as comparing the plaintiffs’ facilities concerns to educational malpractice. “You can’t say, ‘…this classroom is better than that classroom. Think about the implications, right?” Stio said.
Westminster Foundation Board of Trustees member and WCC Leadership Council member Charles Goldberg said after the hearing that he felt “cautiously optimistic that we will receive a favorable decision.” He was also pleased that the topic of stewardship was discussed within the hearing.
Afran said in an interview with The Rider News following the hearing that “the judges clearly understood the harm to the students and the impending destruction of their educational experience.”
While both parties await a decision from the hearing, Afran explained that if the case gets sent back to trial court, the next step would be the discovery process.
“We’re going to use that to show that Rider never had any need to close [WCC] and that [WCC] was profitable…we will show through discovery that Rider’s plan was to bail Rider out by destroying [WCC],” Afran said.
In a written statement provided Tuesday morning by Rider Communications Director, Adam Grybowski, the university’s Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications, Kristine Brown, said, “…we remain confident that we are legally authorized to operate Westminster Choir College in Lawrenceville.”