Columbia University Wins Dismissal of Italian House Suit

Columbia University won dismissal of a lawsuit alleging the school failed to use donations to promote Italian culture as the benefactors intended.

Several Italian-American families in 1927 donated $400,000, worth about $5 million today, to the university to erect La Casa Italiana, the “Italian House,” on school land. The Italic Institute of America, a nonprofit group based in Floral Park, Queens, sued the school in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan in August.

Columbia asked Justice Marcy S. Friedman to dismiss the suit, saying the institute didn’t have standing to bring the complaint. Friedman, a ruling filed today, rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that they have a right to bring the claims because of a “special interest” in the gift.

“To the extent that Italic Institute and the proposed plaintiffs claim standing as beneficiaries of the trust, they fail to plead allegations that they fall within a ‘sharply defined and limited’ class of potential beneficiaries entitled to a preference in the use of the trust,” Friedman said.

The Italian house was donated for Columbia’s use “on behalf of and in the name of the people of Italian birth and descent in the United States of America and other American citizens who are interested in the diffusion of Italian culture in this country,” according to the original donation document cited in the ruling.

Benefits Everyone

“To the extent that this document expresses the intent of the donors, the intent is not to benefit a limited class but, rather, virtually everyone with an interest in Italian culture,” Friedman wrote.

The institute said in its complaint that the “simple and unambiguous” mission of the house was to serve as the Manhattan-based university’s “centre and seat of its work in the field of Italian language, literature, history and art.” It also said it’s the authorized legal representative of descendants of the donor families.

The institute alleged that some programs at the house are in “stark contrast” to the donors’ intent, or traffic in stereotypes of Italian-American culture, according to the complaint. One such program, entitled “What’ya mean I’m funny? Ball-busting Humor and Italian American Masculinities,” was scheduled for November 2011, according to the complaint.

Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs and James J. DeCristofaro, an attorney representing the Italic Institute, didn’t immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment on the ruling. A voice-mail message left at the institute’s headquarters in Queens also wasn’t immediately returned.

The case is Italic Institute of America Inc. v. Columbia University, 652948/2012, New York State Supreme Court (Manhattan).

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