May 18, 2022

Appellate Court Hears Challenge to Dismissal Of Westminster Lawsuits

By Anne Levin

Attorneys for Rider University and the Westminster Foundation presented oral arguments Monday related to two lawsuits that were dismissed two years ago, and then appealed.

Designed to keep Rider from moving Westminster Choir College from its longtime home in Princeton to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus — which it did in 2020 — and selling the valuable, 22-acre Princeton site, the lawsuits were combined into a single hearing and heard in Trenton before Superior Court Appellate Judges Allison E. Accurso, Lisa Rose, and Catherine I. Enright.

If the judges agree with the Foundation’s appeal, the next step would be to go to trial. “If that happens, I feel very strongly we will win,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the Foundation, a coalition of students, alumni, and faculty. The Foundation’s goal is to return Westminster to the Princeton campus, some of which remains in use for classes and concerts.

Rider and Westminster merged in 1991. The terms of the merger dictated that Rider maintain Westminster’s Princeton campus and programs. Citing financial woes, Rider announced in 2016 that it was seeking a buyer for Westminster that would keep the school in Princeton. When a $40 million deal to sell the choir college to a for-profit company based in China fell through, Rider opted to move the school to its Lawrenceville campus.

The original lawsuits brought by two groups — one of faculty, alumni, and donors; the other of students — were dismissed two years ago by Judge Robert Lougy of the Superior Court Chancery Division. In that case, Rider argued that the students did not have the right to use the courts to protect the school. Only Rider is permitted to make decisions regarding Westminster, the university claimed.

Rider was represented in this week’s hearing by attorney Angelo Stio of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders. According to an article in the Rider News, Stio said Lougy had made the right decision in dismissing the Foundation’s claims. “Stio also maintained that the litigation focus must remain on the decision-making process, rather than the consequences, as well as comparing the plaintiffs’ facilities concerns to educational malpractice.”

Afran said Tuesday that by moving Westminster off the Princeton campus, Rider had done just that. “There is no facility at Rider for training in choral music, for opera. At Westminster, there were about 100 practice rooms. There are maybe a dozen at Rider,” he said. “So it’s an unsuitable location, contrary to Westminster’s purposes.”

Tom Faracco, a Westminster alumnus and emeritus professor and the vice president of the Foundation, was in attendance at the hearing. “The judges were extremely well prepared,” he said. “Several times in the hearing, she [Judge Accurso] said how unusual and unique this is. She said there doesn’t seem to be a precedent, and Bruce said that, too. I have a feeling that whatever decision they make, this will be a precedent. So I think the judges consider this a very important case.”

According to Faracco and others in the courtroom, the judges asked more than once if Rider was “destroying Westminster’s soul to save Rider’s skin,” to which Stio replied, “We’re allowed to do that.”

Afran said the first thing the judges asked him was why the case was not moot, since the move of the campus has already occurred. “We answered that it’s nonsense,” Afran said. “They’re still using the Princeton campus. They do recitals there. They can move right back in. So I think they clearly understood.”