PA Superior Court, 2013 PA Super 145, June 19, 2013: Special knowledge not sufficient interest for private citizen to intervene in charitable trust matter.
[Editorial note: Some commentators have made the argument that conservation easements and historic preservation easements are charitable trusts under the laws of various States. This case is reviewed here because it concerns standing to intervene in a charitable trust matter.]
This appeal was brought by attorney R. Feudale from the judgment of a trial court that Feudale lacks standing to petition to reopen proceedings about a charitable trust. The Barnes Foundation is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation charged with implementation of a charitable trust for the advancement of art education and appreciation. Starting in about 2002, The Barnes wanted to relocate its gallery from Lower Merion Township to Philadelphia but because of provisions of the trust it had to petition for court approval under the doctrine of “deviation” to make the move. Several parties, including the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, but not including Feudale, participated or intervened in the proceedings. The Barnes’ petition was approved in 2004, and the sole appeal from that final decree was quashed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2005. In 2007 several petitioners, not including Feudale, sought to reopen the proceedings but were held to lack standing. (The Barnes artwork is now housed in a new structure in Philadelphia.)
In 2011 Feudale filed his petition seeking to reopen the 2002 proceedings. The trial judge found that Feudale lacked standing, dismissed his petition, and awarded The Barnes $15,000 in attorney fees from Feudale because his petition was “dilatory, obdurate or vexatious.” Feudale appealed.
To establish his standing, one of Feudale’s assertions on appeal was that under §512 of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Act, 37 PA.CONS.STAT.ANN. § 501, et. seq., private actions are permitted. That section says that, a “… person or other legal entity may maintain an action in an administrative tribunal or court for the protection or preservation of any historic resource in this Commonwealth.” Feudale claimed The Barnes “and the Merion site that describes The Barnes as a symbolically site specific esthetic whole” were a historic resource subject to the protection of that Act.
The court first noted, “With regard to standing in cases specifically involving the enforcement of charitable trusts, our Supreme Court has clearly held that ‘[p]rivate parties generally lack standing to enforce charitable trusts.’ In re Milton Hershey School, 590 Pa. 35, 42, 911 A.2d 1258, 1262 (2006).” The PA Supreme Court said in that case that the public is “the object of the settlor’s beneficiaries in a charitable trust” and therefore “a person whose only interest is that interest held in common with other members of the public cannot compel the performance of a duty the organization owes to the public.”
The court then found that Feudale did not even claim to have a “special interest” (as meant by Hershey) in The Barnes. Feudale claimed that the “special knowledge” of The Barnes he had obtained through research and study gives him the right to intervene in this case, although the court said he did not cite any legal basis in support of the concept of special knowledge counts as a basis for standing to intervene in the regulation and enforcement of a charitable trust. The court said that “special knowledge” is not the same as the “special interest” required Hershey School for private citizens to bring or join an enforcement action against a charitable trust. The court rejected this and other arguments by Feudale in support his claim of standing and his appeal was denied.
The court did overrule the lower court’s award of counsel fees. Despite characterizing Feudale’s arguments as “at times verg[ing] on scattered and disjunctive” it nevertheless said his argument under the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Act “at least merited examination. This issue, not raised by past interveners in this case, cannot be deemed random or frivolous.”