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Couple who pledged $12 million to Chapman University want donation back

Newport Beach couple claim university preyed on them, want $12 million donation back

A 98-year-old Newport Beach philanthropist and his wife are suing Chapman University, alleging that the college coerced him into donating $12 million and then failed to keep its promises.

James and Catherine Emmi want Chapman to return the $3 million the school has already collected and give up any right to the remaining $9 million, according to a complaint filed this month in Orange County Superior Court.

They also are seeking at least $3 million more from the university.

The Emmis say they have no memory of signing a 2013 document pledging the money and accuse Chapman of taking advantage of James Emmi's confusion in his old age.

"[Chapman], after noting signs of deterioration and vulnerability in James, preyed on [him] for a multimillion[-dollar] donation," the lawsuit states.

A representative of the university denied the allegations Thursday.

"Chapman University is deeply saddened by the misstatements in the complaint filed by the Emmis," spokeswoman Mary Platt said. "The allegations do not reflect what occurred and completely mischaracterize the Emmis' interactions with the university."

According to their suit, the Emmis previously gave smaller donations to the private university in Orange, including a $450,000 gift in 2009 to help build a science center.

James and Catherine Emmi, 84, also have donated millions to Hoag Hospital and to the Pacific Symphony.

The Emmis allege that after receiving their gift for the science center, the university "continued to hound" them for more money, even after they rejected a 2012 proposal for a $5-million donation that would have included putting their names on a technology hall in the center.

In 2013, the complaint alleges, the university approached the Emmis again, this time asking for a $12-million contribution to the science center.

Chapman staff began pushing the couple to make the donation by inviting them to special events, sending them cards and referring to them as family, the suit says.

The complaint alleges that Chapman targeted James Emmi because administrators knew he was "susceptible to inducement and confusion."

According to the lawsuit, Emmi finally agreed to the $12-million donation over tea with university President James Doti in September 2013.

The Emmis say the gift came with the understanding that it would be tendered over four years, that the money would be used only to construct a technology and engineering building named after the Emmis and that the project would be finished before December 2016. According to the lawsuit, the Emmis also were promised a "full-scale media effort" to recognize the donation.

In October 2013, the university received the first $3 million, the lawsuit says.

The Emmis allege that Chapman then began reneging on the understanding. For instance, the suit says, the university didn't recognize James Emmi onstage during a 2013 ceremony, instead focusing on a $15-million gift from another donor.

The Emmis also allege that the college never intended to meet the 2016 deadline to finish the building. One year after the gift, "not even one blueprint had been prepared for the Emmi Hall," the lawsuit states.

The $12-million donation amounts to nearly 60% of James Emmi's estate, according to the lawsuit.

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Dobruck writes for Times Community News.

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