Wednesday, June 10, 2015
One of my least favorite days in Nonprofits class is the day that we discuss the difference between trust and corporate fiduciary duties (Sibley Hospital, anyone?). Lest one think that the distinction is purely academic, along comes the sad case of Sweet Briar College to reaffirm that this area of law remains completely and utterly confusing.
If you’ve not been following the story, Sweet Briar College’s operating entity is a “non-profit corporation” (Complaint, Para. 6) which was created by the Virginia General Assembly “to administer the trust created by the will” of its primary funder, Indiana Fletcher Williams. The Complaint also asserts that SBC is a charitable organization under the Virginia Charitable Solicitation laws and is a “trustee” under Virginia’s version of the Uniform Trust Code. (So I’m confused already….)
According to the Complaint, the provisions of Mr. Williams’ will place his residuary estate in a trust. The trustees of that trust were instructed to create a corporation to run a women’s college in perpetuity. It would appear that in 1901 in Virginia, a nonprofit corporate charter could only be obtained by act of the General Assembly, and so it was. (Complaint, p. 17). The corporate charter incorporated the terms and conditions of Mr. Williams’ will, which required the assets to be held in perpetuity for the women’s college and directed that the assets not be sold.
Fast forward to March, 2015, when the current Board of Directors of the college announced that it would close the doors of the college, and liquidate its assets, including its endowment (Complaint, p. 26) due to the college’s poor financial condition. Litigation, of course, ensued.
The Complaint alleges violations of the Uniform Trust Code, which it asserts is applicable not only the original funding of the College occurred through the trust under Mr. Williams’ will, but also because “the Act of the Assembly creating the College requires that the College be administered in the manner of an express or charitable trust” (Complaint, p. 55). It then states, “Because the College is a charitable corporation, the assets held by Defendants are deemed to be held in trust for the public.” (Complaint, p. 56). Among other things, the original Complaint requested a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction restraining actions in furtherance of closing the school.
So the question then becomes, Sweet Briar College a trust? Is it a corporation? Does it matter? Should it?
More on this Nonprofit Law Prof Blog Cliffhanger next time….