Appellate Division ruling sends Rider University and Westminster Choir College lawsuit back to Superior Court
The state Appellate Division of Superior Court has reversed a Mercer County Superior Court judge’s dismissal of two lawsuits that sought to block Rider University from closing the Westminster Choir College and moving it from its Princeton campus to Rider’s Lawrence Township campus.
The Appellate Division ruling, which was issued June 29 by a three-judge panel, sends the lawsuits back to Mercer County Superior Court to be heard again. The decision overturns Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy’s March 2020 ruling to dismiss the lawsuits.
Rider University will not comment on Appellate Division ruling because it is pending litigation, said Kristine Brown, Rider University’s associate vice president for marketing and communications.
However, she noted, “Rider looks forward to demonstrating to the Court that Rider had sound legal and business reasons for its decision to move Westminster Choir College to its Lawrenceville campus.”
The lawsuits were filed by 71 Westminster Choir College students and Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey Inc. in 2018 and 2019. The foundation includes faculty, former board members, alumni and donors.
The students and the Westminster Foundation sought a court order to require Rider University to continue operating the Westminster Choir College on its Princeton campus, as required under the 1991 agreement merging the two educational institutions.
The students and the foundation, which is not affiliated with Westminster Choir College, opposed the move to Rider University’s campus because they claimed Rider would be “unable to match the specialized facilities on the Princeton campus.”
The facilities at the choir college, whose former campus is located on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Walnut Lane, ranged from 46 specialized practice rooms to space for 20 pipe organs and 165 pianos.
Rider University completed its move of the Westminster Choir College to its Lawrence Township campus in time for the 2020-21 academic year. The choir college campus in Princeton remains mostly vacant.
In response to the lawsuits, Rider University claimed the students did not have the right to go to court to protect the school. Rider asserted that it was the only body that could make decisions regarding the Westminster Choir College.
But the Appellate Division’s decision said the students, faculty, alumni and donors had the right to go to court to protect the choir college.
The 1991 agreement provided that Rider University must “respect Westminster Choir College’s independent existence and its separate educational program,” said attorney Bruce Afran. He represents the students and the foundation.
Under the agreement, Rider University could not close Westminster Choir College except under extraordinary circumstances, Afran said.
“This case will return to (Mercer County Superior Court) where Rider will be forced to prove a necessity to close Westminster,” Afran said. “It is a nearly impossible burden, since Westminster was profitable, bringing in millions in annual revenue to Rider.”
In 2016, Rider University decided to sell Westminster Choir College. It launched a worldwide search for a buyer who would keep the choir college in Princeton.
Rider University found a buyer in a commercial, Chinese-government owned entity known as Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology, Ltd., but the construction company had no experience in running a college.
When the deal fell through in 2019, Rider University announced plans to consolidate and move the choir college to its Lawrence Township campus. The announcement triggered the lawsuit by students and the foundation to block the move.