Friday, June 26, 2015
We have been following the Sweet Briar College litigation and settlement on this blog (see here and here). I thought readers might be interested in knowing precisely what the Virginia Supreme Court stated in its order leading up to the settlement. First, let’s be clear on the context of the Virginia Supreme Court order. This high court was considering an order of the circuit court (a lower court) that had granted in part and denied in part a motion for a temporary injunction, filed by the Commonwealth, to restrain the college from facilitating its closure during the legal proceedings. The state supreme court characterized the lower court’s order as having been based, “at least in part, upon the legal conclusion that the law of trusts cannot apply to a corporation.” The Virginia Supreme Court called this conclusion of the lower court “erroneous.” Said the high court:
The law of trusts can apply to a corporation. Jimenez v. Corr, 288 Va. 395, 411, 764 S.E.2d 115, 122 (2014) ("When . . . a trust exists, it is not a separate legal entity being referred to, but a fiduciary relationship between already existing parties, be they real persons or other legal entities."); Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 96(1) (1959) ("The extent of the capacity of a corporation to take and hold property in trust is the same as that of a natural person except as limited by law."); Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 33(1) (2003) ("A corporation has capacity to take and hold property in trust except as limited by law, and to administer trust property and act as trustee to the extent of the powers conferred upon it by law."); see also, e.g., Code § 64.2-706(C) (establishing rules governing the principal place of administration for certain "corporate trustee[s]"). The charitable, non-profit, or non-stock status of a corporation does not alter this legal principle. See Dodge v. Trustees of Randolph-Macon Women’s College, 276 Va. 10, 16, 661 S.E.2d 805, 809 (2008) (holding that Randolph-Macon Woman's College was not subject to the Uniform Trust Code because the College was not a trustee of a trust to which the Uniform Trust Code applies, and not simply because the College is a non-stock charitable corporation).
Accordingly, the circuit court erred to the extent it exercised its discretion in acting upon the motion for a temporary injunction based upon this erroneous legal conclusion.
What the Virginia Supreme Court ruled is not that a charitable corporation is necessarily governed by the law of charitable trusts. Rather, the Court concluded that a charitable corporation can serve as the trustee of a charitable trust under state law. The two are very different legal propositions.