Keswick wins suit over will, $31 million

Top Md. court overturns race clause in bequest to integrated nursing home

May 07, 2002|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Overturning the terms of a segregation-era will, the state's highest court said yesterday that Keswick Multi-Care Center should receive a $31.6 million bequest that was originally designated for "white patients who need physical rehabilitation."

"The illegal racially discriminatory condition" in the will "violates Maryland public policy," the court said in a unanimous 21-page opinion written by Judge John C. Eldridge. "Consequently the provisions of the will should be administered as if the word `white' was not contained in the bequest."

The will said that if the legacy was "not acceptable" to Keswick, the University of Maryland Hospital would get the money. No racial conditions were attached to the fallback bequest. In 1999, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ruled that the money should go to University of Maryland Hospital, now part of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Keswick, a 118-year-old nursing home and assisted living facility in North Baltimore, had argued throughout the court cases that it should not be penalized for running an integrated facility.

"We thought all along we were on the right side of this thing," Edmond P. Nolley Jr., president of Keswick's board, said. "Sometimes, being on the right side works out."

The will was written Dec. 27, 1962, by Dr. Jesse C. Coggins, who operated the Laurel Sanitarium in Prince George's County. He had written nearly a dozen wills, beginning in 1944. Only the last one, which replaced one written 34 days before, contained the racial restriction.

Coggins died at the age of 88 a month after writing that last will, having spent most of his life working in a segregated medical system, including nine years early in the century working at Spring Grove State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. According to a history prepared by Spring Grove, when Coggins worked there, African-American patients were housed in the basement. The year after he left, the hospital opened a separate "Cottage for Colored Women."

Coggins' will said his estate, worth $2.3 million when he died, should be held in trust to care for his wife and three other people. When all four of them had died, the money that was left was to go to Keswick for a new building named for Coggins.

Keswick borrowed to construct its Coggins Building in 1970. His widow, Helen Alexander Coggins, eventually became a member of the board of Keswick - which was, by then, integrated - and then a resident in the Coggins Building. She died in 1998, ending the trust.

The trustee, Mercantile Safe-Deposit & Trust Co., asked the court to resolve how it should deal with the racial provisions of the will, which by 1998 were illegal.

UMMS told the court that legal precedent required that if Coggins had designated another recipient, it didn't matter why Keswick had chosen not to comply with the will - that UMMS had to get the money.

Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, in city Circuit Court, agreed in a decision that attracted national attention.

Keswick appealed, and the Court of Appeals heard arguments almost two years ago, May 9, 2000. Judge Eldridge declined yesterday to explain why the court had taken so long to issue its ruling. "Different opinions of the court take different times for different reasons," he said. "We don't go behind the decisions and talk about them."

In the decision, Eldridge wrote: "The broad question before us is whether, under Maryland law, a court will enforce the illegal racially discriminatory condition by ordering that the proceeds be paid to the alternative beneficiary, the University of Maryland Hospital. Our answer to this question shall be `No.'"

The court cited several cases as precedent, including a Maryland case in which a woman who died in 1942 left money to a church, under the condition the church had to build a new sanctuary within five years. But for more than five years after she died, World War II construction restrictions prevented the church from building. The Court of Appeals had let the church keep the money.

Joan S. Shnipper, a UMMS spokeswoman, said yesterday, "Our lawyers have advised us not to comment at this time."

Nolley said Keswick doesn't have specific plans for the money. He said the Coggins Building had since been paid off through other contributions.

Once just a nursing home, Keswick has expanded in recent years to offer assisted living and adult day care. Beginning in the fall, a Johns Hopkins geriatric center will be on its campus. Keswick is also looking at ways to provide more care off campus.

Nolley said the additional $31.6 million, for an institution with an endowment of about $100 million, "really helps to fortify the future."

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