Clark Atlanta University has taken Morris Brown College to the Georgia Supreme Court over three properties they sold. Clark Atlanta says the college should not have been able to sell the properties because the old deed for them says the land must be used for an educational purpose or else go back to the original owner.
In 1940, the properties were given to Morris Brown for $1 by Clark Atlanta. The land was given as a charitable gift, as the college was going through a financial downturn.
Last year, the college faced bankruptcy once again and decided to sell the properties to remain afloat. They sold them to Invest Atlanta, an economic development agency, for $10.8 million. Since then, Clark Atlanta has sued, stating the sale directly violated the terms by which Morris Brown received the land. If ruled in Clark Atlanta’s favor, the land would revert back to the university.
“Use of land and the selling of that land are mutually exclusive,” Bernard Taylor, Clark Atlanta’s lawyer, told members of the Georgia Supreme Court Monday.
However, the lawyer for Invest Atlanta, John Watkins, argued that the language of the deed leaves the definition of the word “use” up for a broader interpretation, which would allow the sale to be processed as educational use.
He also argued that if those who wrote the deed required Morris Brown to possess and/or occupy the land or forfeit it to Clark Atlanta, they would have written those exact words within the document.
In addition, Watkins argued that the restriction is actually only placed on one of the properties given by Clark Atlanta. Taylor says this is not the case, and the position that it applied to all three has been upheld in addition to Invest Atlanta’s request for dismissal being denied.
Justice David Nahmias did inquire about what would happen to Morris Brown College should the case be decided in Clark Atlanta’s favor. Taylor maintained that Morris Brown, which is an historically black college associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has fewer than 40 students and is not using the property to begin with.
“This land reverting back to Clark Atlanta University would have absolutely no effect on Morris Brown,” he said. Land in Atlanta and throughout the United States is at a premium currently, with investment in commercial properties spiking by 11% in the first quarter of 2015.