New York Supreme Court, 111 Centre Street, NYC
Justice Nancy M. Bannon’s courtroom
The initial hearing to address the Committee to Save Cooper Union’s petition was held on Friday, August 15th in New York City. Arguments were heard from lawyers representing CSCU, the Board of Trustees, and Trustee Jeremy Wertheimer EE’82. The courtroom was filled nearly to capacity with Cooper alumni, students, and members of the press.
The morning session began late, at 11:15, after which a press conference was held outside by CSCU. New York State Senator Brad Hoylman was present at the press conference and made a short speech in support of the petitioners. Hoylman specifically cautioned that in his opinion, if Cooper Union begins charging tuition, the state legislature will have to reconsider their position on affording the Chrysler building property tax exemption to Cooper Union. He stressed that no other NY private institution receives such a tax break (noting that Columbia University paid property taxes on their Rockefeller Center property for 150 years until it was sold in the 1980’s).
Video of the press conference is available at cscu20140815.m4v. The afternoon session began at 2:30 and finished in about an hour. Justice Bannon did not make a ruling and did not indicate when one would be forthcoming.
A brief summary of the court proceedings
Richard Emery and Zoe Salzman (attorneys for CSCU) set forth their case that the Trust indicates in plain language that Peter Cooper’s intentions were for the core curriculum of the school be free for all who attend. The formation of the Associates, and the integral part it plays in the founding documents, were also described. Emery explained to Justice Bannon how the property tax exemption is the linchpin in Peter Cooper’s business model, providing the necessary funding to run the school, and that trustees are engaging in “risky business” by jeopardizing this important revenue source. Salzman called for the judge to compel the Board of Trustees to file for cy pres relief in court to demonstrate that they have no other option but to charge tuition.
Barbara Mather (attorney for CU Board) argued that the Trust does not directly address “tuition,” that the language of the Trust only requires a free series of night lectures open to the public, and that broad discretion was given to the Board with regards to how they run the school. She also called for a dismissal of the case for lack of standing, refuting case law presented by Salzman that supports the standing of beneficiaries of a Trust when specific criteria are met.
Mark Cohen (attorney for Jeremy Wertheimer) argued that the petition against his client be dismissed because he lives in Massachusetts (claiming that NY courts do not have jurisdiction over him), that he does not conduct business in New York, and that he was not present for the vote on the tuition decision. When presented with the minutes of the April 17thBoard Meeting, which indicate that his client was present, Cohen questioned their validity, telling the judge that they were not consistent with his conversations with his client.
Justice Bannon asked questions of all three parties. Petitions, motions and court exhibits are available here (search by Justice Nancy M. Bannon): http://iapps.courts.state.ny.
Numerous reports appeared in the media, but most contained a factual error regarding the “amateur art class” that existed between 1860 and 1885 for which wealthy women paid a small fee. The New York Times described these amateur women as “undergraduates,” and did not note that the Trustees at the time only reluctantly agreed to allow that art class as “a departure from the invariable rule in the other department of the Union, that the instruction shall in all cases be entirely gratuitous,” as stated in their First Annual Report, 1860. This error has since been corrected.