189 F.3d 180 (2nd Cir. 1999), 98-9279, Johnson v The Smithsonian Institution

Docket Nº:Docket No. 98-9279
Citation:189 F.3d 180
Party Name:JAMES H. JOHNSON, individually and as Personal Representative of Distributees of the Estate of William H. Johnson, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant, V THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY, INC., Defendants-Appellees,
Case Date:August 13, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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189 F.3d 180 (2nd Cir. 1999)

JAMES H. JOHNSON, individually and as Personal Representative of Distributees of the Estate of William H. Johnson, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant,

V

THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY, INC., Defendants-Appellees,

Docket No. 98-9279

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 13, 1999

Argued June 9, 1999

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Motley, J.) dismissing the plaintiff's complaint in part under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and in part under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(7) and 19 for failure to join a necessary and indispensable party.

Affirmed as to the dismissal of the claims against the Smithsonian Institution, and reversed and remanded in part as to the dismissal of the claims against Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Inc.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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M. EUGENE GIBBS, Gibbs & Scott, Florence, SC, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

PETER R. STERN, Berger Stern & Webb, LLP, New York, NY (Thomas E. Hone, Berger Stern & Webb, LLP, New York, NY, on the brief), for Defendant-Appellee Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Inc.

JAMES L. COTT, Assistant United States Attorney, New York, NY (Mary Jo White, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, New York, NY; Neil M. Corwin, Gideon A. Schor, Assistant United States Attorneys, New York, NY, on the brief) for Defendant-Appellee The Smithsonian Institution.

Before: FEINBERG and SACK, Circuit Judges, and SPRIZZO, District Judge.[*].

SACK, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff James H. Johnson, individually and as a purported personal representative of distributees of the estate of William H. Johnson, deceased, commenced this action against the Smithsonian Institution ("Smithsonian") and Michael Rosenfeld

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Gallery, Inc. ("Rosenfeld Gallery") asserting, inter alia, conversion and replevin claims and seeking the imposition of a constructive trust in an attempt to obtain artwork created by his uncle William H. Johnson ("Johnson")1 that is now in the possession of the Smithsonian and the Rosenfeld Gallery. Two categories of artwork are at issue in this appeal. The first is Johnson work that was authorized to be abandoned by his estate as worthless pursuant to an April 30, 1956 order issued by the New York State Supreme Court (the "1956 artwork"). The district court found that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine it could not consider any claim against the Smithsonian or the Rosenfeld Gallery with respect to the 1956 artwork. We affirm that portion of the district court's judgment.

The second category of Johnson artwork is works allegedly once in the possession of a third party, the Harmon Foundation (the "1946 artwork"). The plaintiff claims that this work was fraudulently withheld from Johnson when he asked for its return in 1946. This body of work, if it exists, allegedly never became part of Johnson's estate. The district court dismissed the claims against the Smithsonian and the Rosenfeld Gallery with respect to the 1946 artwork because it concluded that the Harmon Foundation was a "necessary" party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 19 that had not been joined and could not be joined because the statute of limitations had run against it. The court also suggested that had it not dismissed the claims against the Smithsonian on that ground, it would have dismissed them on the alternative ground that the plaintiff had failed to comply with the jurisdictional requirements of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

We affirm the dismissal of the claims against the Smithsonian on the alternative ground that the plaintiff failed to comply with the Federal Tort Claims Act. We disagree, however, with the district court's holding that the Harmon Foundation was a necessary party and therefore reverse and remand for further consideration of its judgment with respect to the claims against the Rosenfeld Gallery.

BACKGROUND

The background of this case is described in detail in the district court's opinion, Johnson v. The Smithsonian Institution, 9 F.Supp.2d 347 (S.D.N.Y. 1998). We restate it only insofar as necessary to explain our disposition of this appeal.

According to the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint, Johnson, an African-American artist, was born in South Carolina in 1901. He later lived in New York, France and Scandinavia. From the mid-1920s until 1947 he created well over 1,000 pieces of art paintings, water colors and prints. He received recognition for his work from several organizations including the Harmon Foundation, a New York non-profit organization that assisted African-American artists. The Harmon Foundation also served as a caretaker and agent for the sale of some of Johnson's artwork and therefore at various times had Johnson artwork in its possession.

The complaint further alleges that Johnson informed the Harmon Foundation in 1946 that he was moving to Denmark and requested that the Foundation return all of his works. The plaintiff claims that unbeknownst to Johnson the Harmon Foundation returned only some of his work and fraudulently held onto the rest the 1946 artwork.

While traveling in Norway in 1947, Johnson was diagnosed as suffering from syphilis-induced paresis and pronounced mentally incompetent. On December 1, 1947, after he was repatriated to the United States, Johnson was involuntarily committed to Central Islip State Hospital in New York, where he died in 1970.

On September 21, 1948, the New York State Supreme Court declared that Johnson

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was incompetent and appointed an attorney to serve as his Committee of the Person and Property in order to administer the assets of his estate. The Committee administered Johnson's property for seven years. A Special Guardian was appointed by the state to represent Johnson's rights and interests during a year-long final accounting of Johnson's property.

While the Committee was administering the estate, it collected Johnson's artwork and stored it in a warehouse in New York from 1948 to 1956. The Committee had those works appraised by someone whom the Committee referred to as a "recognized expert and specialist in appraising water colors, paintings, and prints and other objects of art," who determined that the paintings were worth a "maximum nominal value of $100.00." As summarized by the Committee, the appraiser concluded "that based upon his experience in evaluation and appraising paintings of all kinds, the paintings, water colors and prints were of such inferior quality, that no purchaser therefor could be or would be found. In brief, these paintings, water colors and prints were infantile." The Committee also unsuccessfully attempted to sell the pieces through advertisements in The New York Times. The Committee then told the state court that "these paintings, water colors and prints are worthless and cannot be sold or otherwise disposed of" and requested permission to abandon the artwork as "worthless and of no value."

The Committee prepared a final accounting of the estate in which it detailed its intent to abandon the artwork. The Committee caused the accounting to be served upon the New York State Supreme Court, Johnson, Johnson's mother who resided in South Carolina, and Johnson's Special Guardian. No objections to the abandonment were filed. The New York State Supreme Court therefore ordered that the "committee be and he hereby is authorized to abandon as worthless and of no value, paintings, water colors and prints belonging to [Johnson]."

Approximately one month after the abandonment order was issued, according to the plaintiff, the Committee transferred many pieces of Johnson's artwork to the Harmon Foundation without consideration. The Foundation had expressed an interest in attempting to restore the paintings for their historical significance. After the transfer, according to the plaintiff, the Harmon Foundation held in its possession both the 1946 artwork, which it had withheld from Johnson, and the 1956 artwork, which the Committee had abandoned.

The Harmon Foundation...

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