By Stephen Neukam
In front of a standing-room-only courtroom, packed with Westminster Choir College (WCC) students, alumni and faculty, lawyers representing Rider and those opposing the consolidation of the school argued their cases for nearly three hours in the Mercer County Civil Courthouse in Trenton on Feb. 14.
The hearing, which was presided over by Judge Robert T. Lougy, was held to consider the university’s motion to dismiss two lawsuits against it over its actions with WCC — one suit comprised of WCC alumni and faculty and the other of 71 current students. As the hearing concluded, Lougy said he did not make decisions from the bench, leaving both parties to wait for a ruling in the near future.
The university moved to have the suits dismissed for a number of reasons but predominantly on the argument that the plaintiffs in both cases do not have sufficient standing to bring the lawsuits forward.
Angelo Stio from the law firm Pepper Hamilton represented the university at the hearing, along with Vice President of Legal Affairs and General Counsel Mark Solomon and two other lawyers. Rider’s latest tax documents show that the school contracted Pepper Hamilton, which represents the school on a number of legal issues, for $340,683 in 2017. The university declined to disclose the amount it paid the law firm in 2018 and 2019.
The students, faculty and alumni, the university argued, are not party to or third party beneficiaries of a number of agreements concerning WCC, including the 1991 merger agreement between WCC and Rider. Therefore, the parties lack the legal standing to enforce the terms of the contracts.
Attorney Bruce Afran, representing the students, faculty and alumni groups suing the university, argued adamantly that if those he represented did not have the standing to challenge the university, then no one did.
The plaintiffs also argued that there is a significant public interest in the preservation of WCC as a college and conservatory, which students and faculty are direct beneficiaries of.
In a particularly powerful moment in the hearing, Afran motioned toward the audience behind him and pointed out freshman sacred music major Jordan Klotz, who is a party to the student lawsuit, and told the court that Klotz will be affected by the consolidation of the school.
Afran also argued that the university’s move to dismiss the cases was its attempt to clear itself of any opposition in its plans for WCC.
The university argued that an injunction related to the sale of the property would be unnecessary because there are no immediate plans to sell the Princeton campus.
The lawyers for Rider also put forward a slippery slope scenario, giving the hypothetical that if the court allowed the plaintiffs to sue the school that students could then challenge any contract the university had entered into, including suing “a food service provider if they do not like the food in the dining hall,” according to the university’s legal memorandum.
Afran dismissed this claim, saying that the future of an institution and the effect it has on students, faculty and alumni is incomparable to displeasure with dining facilities.
Klotz was pleased that Lougy decided to take more time to consider the arguments and pointed out that the court “seemed to be very impartial.”
“We see no reason why our case should not be heard in a trial,” said Klotz. “After all, this isn’t a lawsuit about dining hall food that we don’t like, a comparison that the university legal team made in an attempt to discuss our complaint. This is about the fundamental upheaval of an institution that is 100 years old and has been in Princeton for 85 of those 100 years.”
In a statement to The Rider News, Vice President for University Marketing and Communication Kristine Brown remained optimistic about the school’s chances of having the suits dismissed.
“We look forward to the judge’s decision and remain confident in our legal position that Rider is permitted to move Westminster Choir College to Lawrenceville,” said Brown. “We continue to be highly focused on our work to successfully transition Westminster’s programs to the Lawrenceville campus in the fall and our efforts to ensure a strong and sustainable future for Westminster Choir College.”
Constance Fee, president of Westminster Foundation, the organization opposing Rider’s plan to relocate WCC, was confident in the arguments made for her organization but made it clear that they would continue legal action no matter the decision the court comes to.
“Based on the arguments the attorneys presented, the pointed questions asked by the judge, and the strength of the responses, I believe the motions to dismiss will be denied and that we will move ahead to trial, but we won’t know anything for certain until the judge issues his decision,” said Fee in a written statement. “Whatever the outcome, I can assure you that we will move ahead with determination to the next step in the legal process.”