Appellate division court date set for Westminster Choir College lawsuits

By Sarah Siock

Nearly two years after students and alumni filed appeals challenging the dismissal of lawsuits that sought to block Rider’s relocation of Westminster Choir College (WCC) from its Princeton campus to Lawrenceville, the State Appellate Division of Superior Court has set a date of May 16 for oral arguments. 

According to Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown, the lawsuits — one comprised of faculty, alumni and donors to the college and the other filed by current students — were dismissed in March 2020 by Judge Robert Lougy, of the Superior Court Chancery Division, in favor of Rider. However, an attorney from the Westminster Foundation, a group made up of alumni and faculty working to stop the sale or movement of the school, filed the appeals on behalf of the alumni and student plaintiffs in October 2020.

“Among several arguments, Rider argued that the 1991 agreements explicitly stated that third parties were not beneficiaries of the agreements and therefore they do not have legal standing to bring their claims. In addition, nothing in the original deed for the property prevented Rider from moving Westminster to Lawrenceville,” said Brown.   

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President of the Westminster Foundation Constance Fee previously told The Rider News that the COVID-19 pandemic led to delays and backlogs in the court system which prolonged setting a date for oral arguments.

In the summer of 2020, Rider moved WCC students to the Lawrenceville campus. Since the move, many WCC members have expressed unhappiness with the campus. For instance, in December, students, alumni and faculty signed a petition that outlined several disappointments with the campus. The petition, which was emailed to administrators, contained a plethora of grievances including limited practice space and substandard acoustics in the choir’s practice space at Gill Chapel. 

Westminster Foundation attorney Bruce Afran said, in a statement supplied by Fee, “We will be arguing that the trial judge was incorrect when he held that the students, alumni and teachers did not have the right to ask for a court order blocking Rider’s attempt to move and, ultimately, close Westminster Choir College and to destroy its specialized campus and facilities. All of this, our briefs argue, is a breach of Rider University’s charitable duties that it assumed in 1992 when it took over management of Westminster Choir College. We are arguing that because Rider has breached its charitable duties, Westminster Choir College should be returned to an independent board going forward.  We will be arguing to the court that Rider University’s acquisition of Westminster was intended to benefit the students and teachers who have the right to object in court to the destruction of the college by Rider University.”

In an interview with The Rider News on April 19, Fee said the news of a court date was “very encouraging.” 

“We are in this for the long haul … The only goal of the Westminster foundation is to move Westminster Choir College back to its home on the Princeton campus… We are standing our ground and we are not changing our position,” said Fee. 

While WCC students remain in Lawrenceville the Princeton campus is unsold and off the market as the lawsuits continue. However, Brown said there are parties interested in buying the property. 

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