Johns Hopkins Case Reaffirms the Importance of Careful Gift Drafting

December 3, 2013

By: John Gaal

From time to time, institutions will find themselves in a dispute with a donor, a donor’s descendants (in jurisdictions that allow standing for such actions), and or state attorneys general or other regulators, over the appropriate use of a prior gift.  A recent case involving The Johns Hopkins University is the latest to illustrate the importance of the language used in any gift, or other contractual, instrument. In the late 1980’s, the University was the beneficiary of the purchase of an undeveloped piece of property for a price that was about one-third of the fair market value of the parcel.  The seller was a well recognized critic of development in Montgomery County, Maryland.  She sold the property at a reduced price to the University (recognizing the excess value of the transaction as a charitable contribution) rather than succumb to numerous offers for the property’s commercial development, and with the apparent expectation for the University to develop it as a pastoral-like University campus.  Accordingly, the contract and deed restricted the University’s use of the parcel to “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only, which uses may specifically include but not be limited to development of a research campus in affiliation with one or more divisions” of the University.  After plans were approved to allow for rezoning of the parcel to permit much higher density use of the property than, according to the donor’s surviving family, the donor would ever have considered acceptable, the family commenced litigation to prevent the University from moving forward. Ultimately the Maryland Court of Appeals determined that the restrictions in the deed and contract were “unambiguous” and allowed the development the University sought.  The Court found that there was no dispute that the University’s plan sought only to pursue “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes” as specified in the restriction.  The dispute was whether the contract and deed restricted the scale and density of that development and whether they required “Hopkins qua Hopkins to own and operate the buildings and programs” on the property. While the Court noted that the donor’s family was “no doubt … genuinely aggrieved” by the University’s plans to deviate from the donor’s thoughts regarding the future use of the property, the Court noted that its “task is to examine the agreement the parties did sign, not the agreement that one or the other now wishes they had negotiated instead.”  Relying on basic contract construction principles, the Court rejected the family’s contention that the restriction on “its [the University’s] use” of the property to the specified purposes meant that only the University could own or occupy that property and that it prohibited leasing any portion of the property to third parties:  “We cannot see why Hopkins leasing the property to others to accomplish one or more of the listed purposes does not qualify as a use by Hopkins….Here, the [property] will be used for an indisputably approved purpose, and nothing in [the deed or contract] restricts how or through whom the Buyer, Hopkins, can carry out those purposes.”  The Court also rejected the family’s argument that the mere reference to a “campus” use imposed scale and density restrictions on the University’s development of the parcel. Ultimately the Court found that the unambiguous language of the deed and contract did not preclude the University from moving forward with its plans, notwithstanding the seller’s intent.  Had the language been less clear, the result could have been different, in that the seller’s intent might have functioned to further restrict the University in its actions.  This possibility highlights the importance of careful drafting in gift instruments.  While institutions may be understandably reluctant to test donors’ patience by negotiating extensively over language in a gift instrument, they should always keep in mind that needs and resources change over time.  Restrictions, especially on real property, which an institution may see as workable at the time a gift is made, may prove far less workable when it comes time to actually make use of the gift.  As a result it is important to make sure that gift instruments provide sufficient flexibility to the institution to allow it to deal with the gift in an appropriate manner, and/or to modify the permitted use as desired, as circumstances change several decades or more into the future.  Clarity in this regard may not only help prevent years of costly litigation and/or regulatory scrutiny, but it can also help to avoid public disputes that can negatively impact its relationship with future donors.