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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Aged Donor Claims College Squeezed Him

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Chapman University used undue influence to persuade a 98-year-old man to donate $12 million for a science building, the man and his wife claim in court.

James and Catherine Emmi sued the university on Feb. 4 in Orange County Court.

Chapman is a private, nonprofit university in Orange, California affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It encompasses seven schools and colleges, including the Schmid College of Science & Technology and the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

The Emmis say they got on Chapman's radar in January 2008 when James, a former engineer, made a $50,000 cash donation to a fund raiser for the university's new Center for Science and Technology.

Soon afterwards, Chapman President James Doti started inviting the Emmis to concerts, lunches, and other events at the university so he could ask them for additional donations, according to the complaint.

Doti is not a party to the complaint. The only defendant is Chapman University, and Does 1-100.

In April 2012, James donated an additional $450,000 in an estate pledge, in exchange for having a building named after him or establishing a scholarship fund, the complaint states.

Later that year, the Emmis say, Chapman sent James another pledge proposal offering additional naming privileges in exchange for a $5 million or $10 investment over 10 years.

James, who was 96 at the time, says he rejected the proposal because of his age and concerns about his financial future.

"Despite plaintiffs' express rejection of pledge proposal No. 2, defendant Chapman continued to hound the Emmis for donations to their Center for Science and Technology campaign. In early 2013, Chapman's President Doti continued to contact the Emmis pressing for a massive multimillion-dollar donation to the School of Computation Sciences and Engineering, describing the donation as an 'investment,' a contract, and that the gift would result in naming recognition," the complaint states.

The Emmis claim that Doti and Chapman knew James did not fully understand the ins and outs of the pledge proposals and the financial impact such a large donation would have on him, but "preyed on plaintiff James for large donations against his wishes, because they knew that James was more susceptible to inducement and confusion" due to his age.

In 2013, Chapman sent the Emmis yet another pledge proposal, seeking a "whopping $12 million" donation over 10 years in exchange for naming the Hall of Technology and Engineering after the Emmis and publicizing the donation in the media, according to the complaint.

The Emmis say they rejected the offer, but after an "aggressive" campaign of "wining and dining," flattery, gifts, and promises to use the donation only for the engineering building and that James, who was 98, would live to see it, they relented and agreed to donate the money.

Though neither James nor Catherine agreed to make the donation permanent, Chapman drew up an agreement committing them to an irrevocable $12 million donation due in full on Dec. 31, 2016, the complaint states.

The Emmis say the agreement is invalid because Chapman previously valued the naming privilege at $5 million in earlier pledges, but sought a $12 million donation in exchange for that privilege in the 2013 agreement.

They claim they "have no recollection of ever signing the irrevocable pledge, either as a donor or as a witness," that Chapman did not let them have their attorney review the pledge before pressuring them to sign it, and that James did not fully understand the terms of the agreement due to his old age and Chapman's misrepresentations of the agreement's provisions.

Furthermore, the Emmis say, Chapman reneged on its promise to give their donation media coverage and "completely trivialized James's significant donation in the face of the public" by focusing on a donor who had given $15 million to the health science project. It also failed to publicize the correct amount that James gave, referring to it as "in excess of $10 million" rather than $12 million, the complaint adds.

To make matters worse, the Emmis say, Chapman has not developed a single blueprint for the Emmi Hall of Technology and Engineering despite all of James's donations, and never intended to have it finished by December 2016 so he could see it.

After paying $3 million of the pledge without any progress on Emmi Hall, James wrote to Chapman seeking release from the remaining $9 million, according to the complaint.

But the Emmis say their estate planning attorney, Michael Lawler, went behind their backs and told Chapman that James intended to give the full $12 million, but wanted an extension on the payment schedule.

Lawler is not a party to the complaint.

Based on Lawler's unauthorized statements, Chapman agreed to modify the payment schedule and sent the Emmis a "menacing letter demanding immediate acceptance of Chapman's offer to extend the pledge payment schedule by six years to 2022, and threatening litigation if James failed to accept their offer," the complaint states.

Catherine claims that she hired her own lawyer and insisted that Chapman release them from the pledge agreement, but Chapman refused, and continues to "harass, intimidate, pressure, defraud and harm" them.

Mary Platt, director of communications and media relations for Chapman, told Courthouse News that the university is "deeply saddened by the misstatements in the complaint filed by the Emmis."

"Mr. James Emmi has been a close friend of both President James Doti and the university. The allegations do not reflect what occurred and completely mischaracterize the Emmis' interactions with the university. The university intends to vigorously defend this complaint and looks forward to the opportunity to prove the falsity of these allegations," Platt wrote.

The Emmis seek an order vacating James's $12 million donation, restitution of the $3 million paid on the pledge agreement, and compensatory, special and punitive damages for breach of contract, fraud and deceit, unjust enrichment, unfair business practices, and welfare and probate code violations.

They also want a declaration that Chapman has no right to the remaining $9 million and an injunction preventing it from enforcing the terms of the agreement on the grounds that it obtained the money from the Emmis "by wrongdoing."

They are represented by James G. Bohm with Bohm Wildish of Costa Mesa.

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