Christian College Transfer Gets Complicated in Tennessee

DAYTON, Tenn. (CN) — An attorney representing a Christian athletic association in Southeast Tennessee made moves this week attempting to transfer a lawsuit over a $6 million camp out of a general sessions court.

Counsel for the National Association for Christian Athletes John Konvalinka asked the Rhea County General Sessions Court to reconsider transferring the case out of the venue normally reserved for small claims in a motion filed Thursday morning.

In the motion, he cited a 33-page lawsuit he filed Tuesday in Rhea County Chancery Court alleging the Christian college that received the camp NACA once owned broke Tennessee state law and made misstatements to the IRS during the transfer.

According to NACA, officers and trustees of Bryan College — a Christian liberal arts college started in Dayton after the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial — took over leadership of NACA after one of its founders was found guilty of sexual assault in 2010.

Bryan College was named for William Jennings Bryan, who famously prosecuted high school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Scopes was represented by Clarence Darrow in the 1925 trial. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Bryan died shortly after the trial concluded. The proceedings became the basis of a well-received play, “Inherit the Wind.”

According to NACA, the Bryan-affiliated officers acted against NACA’s interest and donated NACA’s biggest asset — the camp — to Bryan College when the college faced financial difficulty.

According to the complaint, the Bryan College-controlled NACA board of trustees created a “Golden Parachute Plan” for the outgoing founders, to the detriment of the organization.

In 2018, NACA stopped paying rent to lease the camp back from Bryan College, a lease that was set up during the camp’s transfer in June 2016. In response, Bryan College filed a detainer action against NACA in January to gain possession of the camp that sits on a bluff at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.

NACA has said its defense is complex and involves 10 to 20 witnesses and hundreds or thousands of pages of documents.

In a memorandum of law supporting the motion he filed Wednesday, Konvalinka wrote that a decision in general sessions would not likely resolve the issue.

“Here, NACA will have no choice but to appeal any adverse decision that may be rendered against it during the scheduled detainer hearing,” Konvalinka wrote. “Presumably, Bryan College would also appeal a decision by this Court which divests it of title to the Fort Bluff Camp and/or invalidates the lease it seeks to enforce.”

At a hearing March 18 held in the same cavernous courtroom that was the stage for the start of the Scopes Trial, General Sessions Judge Shannon Garrison denied NACA’s motion to remove, but said he might reconsider if something were filed in another court.

Garrison also said, citing Tennessee law, that he would not hear a title suit during the detainer hearing scheduled for mid-April.

Speaking at the mid-March hearing, Anthony “Bud” Jackson of the Chambliss Law firm, representing Bryan College, said: “The whole purpose of a detainer action, as your honor knows better than I do, is possessory. It’s a streamlined process and that’s why we filed in general sessions.”

In its Tuesday lawsuit against the college, NACA asks the court to declare the transfer of the camp and the lease between the organizations invalid and unenforceable. It also seeks to recover the $220,000 it paid to Bryan College in rent.

“Contrary to what was represented to NACA’s independent board in 2009 and to various third parties shortly after Bryan College seized control of NACA’s governing body,” the complaint states, “individuals at Bryan College — including [Bryan College President Stephen] Livesay and [Bryan College Controller Vance] Berger — were not truly interested in managing NACA but, instead, desired to leave NACA with various liabilities while at the same time facilitating the transfer of NACA’s assets, including the Fort Bluff Camp, to Bryan College.”

According to the complaint, Bryan College and Berger did not report the transfer to the Tennessee Attorney General in accordance with state law, nor did they list the transfer or the conflicts of interest in tax forms filed with the IRS.

Furthermore, the complaint states, NACA approved an agreement to lease the camp from Bryan College but that agreement was not the one Bryan College approved and carried out. For example, the agreement required NACA to pay a monthly rent to the college.

“Despite the fact that NACA’s Board of Trustees did not approve Lease 2,” the complaint states, “and, in fact, had approved a substantially different lease agreement, and despite Berger’s clear conflict of interest relative to transactions between and among NACA and Bryan College, Berger executed Lease 2 on behalf of NACA.”

The representatives and attorneys for both organizations did not return requests for comment.

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