Historical Spending (Laches) Motion

What was Princeton’s “laches” motion? How did the court rule?


What was Princeton’s “laches” motion? How did the court rule?

Princeton asked the court to rule that some claims raised by Mrs. Robertson’s descendants are simply too stale to be heard by the court. Princeton argued that certain categories of expenditures that were made before 1996 were plainly known, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been known, to the plaintiffs and yet went unquestioned by them for decades prior to the filing of this lawsuit. [See: Has the Robertson family always disapproved of the Woodrow Wilson School or the way Princeton has used Foundation assets?] Accordingly, Princeton asked the court to preclude review of all expenditures that fall beyond New Jersey’s six-year statute of limitations and laches period (doctrines that preclude judicial review of older claims).

Many of plaintiffs’ claims challenged expenditures that were made by the Foundation decades ago, some as early as 1965. While it has not admitted to any misspending, Princeton argued that the plaintiffs’ claims related to five categories of these expenditures should be dismissed because plaintiffs’ “unreasonable” delay is unjustified and has substantially prejudiced the University’s ability to litigate the claims, as key witnesses are deceased and key records are no longer available. Moreover, plaintiffs William Robertson and Robert Halligan have served on the Foundation board since 1974 and 1982, respectively, yet did not object to the Foundation’s spending until filing their lawsuit in 2002.

The court rejected plaintiffs’ legal argument that the doctrine of laches should not be applied to charities, such as Princeton and the Foundation, or to confidential or fiduciary relationships. The court then examined the record before it to determine whether the doctrine should be applied at this stage of the litigation to the five categories of expenditures at issue. Judge Shuster granted Princeton’s motion with regard to equipment depreciation. The court also granted Princeton’s motion with respect to plaintiffs’ efforts to recover for building depreciation charged prior to fiscal year 1996 because, the court found, “building depreciation—whatever it may have constituted—was disclosed in every year.” Finally, the court ruled that there were disputes of material fact that precluded it from determining at this stage of the litigation whether the doctrine applied to the other categories of expenditures at issue.

At trial, Princeton will present evidence demonstrating that the plaintiffs unreasonably delayed in raising their objections to the remaining categories of the Foundation’s spending, as Judge Shuster decided with respect to plaintiffs’ equipment depreciation and building depreciation claims. Princeton will argue at trial that because of this unreasonable delay the court should not revisit, item by item, spending decisions made over four decades by board members who used the gift to develop one of the world’s preeminent graduate schools of public and international affairs.