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County Attorney Sues to Stop the Closure of Sweet Briar College

[Updated (3/31/2015, 4:48 p.m.) with a statement from the college.]

[Updated (3/30/2015, 8:07 p.m.) with details on and analysis of the lawsuit.]

A county attorney in Virginia sued on Monday to block the closure of Sweet Briar College. In a complaint filed against the college on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the attorney said she was seeking the following actions:

  • To enjoin the college from taking further steps to close.
  • To bar the college from “using funds raised by charitable solicitations for purposes other than the solicited purposes or the general purposes of the college.”
  • To have the college’s interim president and Board of Directors removed, and to have a special fiduciary appointed to take control of the college’s assets.
  • To have a new president and board appointed.

The lawsuit makes two central allegations: first, that Sweet Briar violated Virginia’s charitable-solicitation law because it accepted charitable donations intended to bolster its educational mission as it prepared to close, thereby violating the donors’ intentions; and second, that the college violated Virginia’s Uniform Trust Code by acting contrary to the will of its founding documents.

The suit was filed in the Circuit Court of Amherst County, Va., where the college is located, by Ellen Bowyer, the county attorney.

The announcement this month that the college would close shocked students, faculty members, alumni, and many others in higher education. Critics of the decision cited the college’s nearly $100-million endowment as evidence that closing its doors was not its only option.

Monday’s lawsuit was the first to be filed against the college over its planned closure, though a group of alumnae — calling itself Saving Sweet Briar — has threatened legal action on similar grounds. In a letter last week, the group’s lawyers made the same claims as in Monday’s lawsuit.

Responding to the group’s claims, the college’s lawyer, Calvin W. Fowler Jr., wrote that the allegations were “not only unwarranted, but defamatory.” He went on: “The president and the board did not breach any fiduciary duties or requirements of the Virginia Non-Stock Corporation Act, nor did they violate Virginia’s Uniform Trust Act or any common law of trusts,” adding that the alumnae group “does not even have legal standing to assert any such claims.”

According to Monday’s lawsuit, the county attorney, empowered to bring action against parties violating state law, has the standing that the alumnae group may lack. But Robert M. O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia and an emeritus professor in its law school, said in an interview that it was unusual for the county attorney to sue on behalf of the state.

“She must know what she’s doing,” he said of Ms. Bowyer. “I just assume she would not have taken this on without having gone very carefully through the process.” He added: “This is a totally new twist, and it’s fairly drastic.”

Along with the complaint and dozens of pages of supporting documents, the county attorney’s office also released a statement.

“I have spoken with all the affected parties, including the attorney general’s office, the lawyers for Saving Sweet Briar, and the college’s lawyers,” Ms. Bowyer said in the statement, “and I have reached the conclusion that it is necessary and important to examine the closure process within the context of circuit-court proceedings. For that reason, the complaint asks the court to, among other things, enter an injunction restraining the defendants from taking any further steps to close the college, and requiring the defendants to continue operating the college in the normal course of business.”

Christy L. Jackson, the college’s director of media, marketing, and communications, released a statement on behalf of the college Tuesday. It reads: “Sweet Briar College has the utmost respect for the Office of the County Attorney of Amherst; however, the claims asserted in the County Attorney’s Complaint are contrary to well-established Virginia law as expressed by both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of Virginia. Sweet Briar’s counsel engaged in open dialogue with the County Attorney prior to the lawsuit being filed, and although the matter is now in litigation, Sweet Briar will remain receptive to further communications with the County Attorney on all matters as the litigation progresses.”

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