Four Major Cases Affecting Nonprofits

Whether one is a nonprofit or for profit organization, it is important to recognize key changes that are happening in your field. This month we highlight four important cases that can effect your nonprofit.

Case #1: Transparent GMU v. George Mason University

This case is important because it affects whether a nonprofit has to disclose agreements between the nonprofit and its donors.[1] This lawsuit was filed by a George Mason University student group in response to the university receiving sizable donations to its foundation by the Charles Koch Foundation.[2] The Charles Koch Foundation had issued gifts up to 15 million USD to George Mason so that the university may rename the law school for Supreme Court Justice Scalia and allow the Charles Koch Foundation to have input on faculty staffing.[3] Transparent GMU sued George Mason University to publicize the rest of the agreement between the donors and the university with the argument that the agreements are covered by Virginia’s open record laws.[4] The Virginia Fairfax County Circuit Court held that the George Mason University Foundation was not a public body however and therefore not compelled to publicize the donation agreement due to the open record laws.[5] This case is important for nonprofits to know because after this ruling, it is unlikely that a nonprofit will have to disclose the details surrounding it’s donations even if the public demands it. This is significant in light of the typical public filings and public reporting that a nonprofit must normally do.

Case #2: Underwood v. The Donald J. Trump Foundation

This case is important because it concerns a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization misspending funds.[6] Attorney General Underwood of New York alleged the Foundation had an unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign and had several transactions to benefit the Trumps.[7] Eventually the Trump Foundation agreed to be dissolved and have its assets distributed to other charitable organizations under judicial supervision after the Foundation failed to have the case dismissed.[8] This case is important for nonprofits to consider because it shows if that nonprofits can be sued for illegal practices. As such, nonprofits must take all necessary precautions to follow the rules or face charges.

Case #3:

This case concerns how nonprofits obtain donations. Recently, there was an ongoing investigation by the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. He issued three cease and desist orders against Food For the Poor, MAP International, and Catholic Medical Mission Board.[9] These cease and desist orders stem from the three nonprofit organizations allegedly using deceptive practices in fundraising solicitations.[10] Allegedly the organizations represented program spending percentages as inaccurately high as a result of including noncash contributions.[11] The three charitable organizations are appealing the order. The group faces the possibility of having their charitable registrations revoked and fines over $1.65 million.[12] This case is important for nonprofits to note because none of the three nonprofits are based in California but simply have solicited California residents. As a result, nonprofits are on notice that the response will be swift and aggressive should it mislead the public. This is a cautionary tale to nonprofit organizations on the importance of being transparent and using honest means to solicit donations.

Case #4: Gogtay et al v. Second Chance, Inc.

This case demonstrates the importance of accurately disclosing to donors the tax deductibility of their donations. It is a class action lawsuit out of Maryland that alleged the nonprofit Second Chance mislead donors into believing they would receive significant tax refunds for donations.[13] The plaintiffs alleged hundreds of donors were deceived into donating with promises of tax refunds and were audited by the IRS that disallowed the deduction.[14] The plaintiffs allege Second Chance knew the IRS did not approve of the benefits they were promoting and that Second Chance made false representations.[15] Nonprofit organizations should be aware of this case because it demonstrates the need to make accurate disclosures or face serious ramifications.

[1] Big Donors Sometimes Mean Big Headaches: George Mason University, University of Chicago, and More, Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, (May 3, 2018) https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/nonprofit/2018/05/big-donors-sometimes-mean-big-headaches-george-mason-university-university-of-chicago-and-more.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Sarah Larimer, George Mason University Foundation is not subject to public records laws, judge rules, Wash. Post, (July 6, 2018) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/07/06/george-mason-university-foundation-is-not-a-public-body-judge-rules-in-records-case/?utm_term=.7513c0cb2a4f.

[6] Attorney General Underwood Announces Lawsuit Against Donald J. Trump Foundation And Its Board of Directors For Extensive And Persistent Violations of State And Federal Law, N.Y. State Office of the Attorney General, https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/attorney-general-underwood-announces-lawsuit-against-donald-j-trump-foundation-and-its (last visited at Feb. 13, 2019).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Mark Hrywna, Charities Get Cease And Desist From California AG, The Nonprofit Times, (Mar. 22, 2018), http://www.thenonprofittimes.com/news-articles/charities-get-cease-desist-california-ag/.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Lorraine Mirabella, Lawsuit says nonprofit Second Chance misled consumers, Baltimore Sun, (Oct. 12, 2017), https://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-second-chance-lawsuit-20171012-story.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

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