27 N.Y.2d 270, Watts v. Swiss Bank Corp.

Citation:27 N.Y.2d 270, 317 N.Y.S.2d 315
Party Name:Watts v. Swiss Bank Corp.
Case Date:November 25, 1970
Court:New York Court of Appeals

Page 270

27 N.Y.2d 270

317 N.Y.S.2d 315

Sewell S. WATTS, Jr., et al., as Executors of Roberta M. Lanari, Deceased, Appellants,


SWISS BANK CORPORATION, Defendant and Interpleading Plaintiff. Maria E. Meyer-Lanari et al., Interpleaded Defendants-Respondents.

New York Court of Appeals

November 25, 1970.

Page 271

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 272

        [317 N.Y.S.2d 316] Gerald J. Dunworth, J. Arthur Leve and Mark D. Lebow, New York City, for appellants.

        Bernard J. Reverdin, Winslow M. Lovejoy, Douglas Foster, and Edwin L. Gasperini, New York City, for respondents.

Page 273

        [317 N.Y.S.2d 317] BREITEL, Judge.

        At issue is the ownership of the proceeds of a joint account in the New York office of a Swiss bank. The account had been opened by a married couple domiciled in France. Both have died, the husband first, and the surviving wife after litigation over the ownership of the account had begun. Substantially, the ownership turns on the conflict between the rights of survivorship of joint owners of a bank account under New York law and the rights of devolution under the forced heirship rules mandated by the civil law of France. Actions were instituted both in New York and France. The French litigation went to judgment first, and the result hinges on the principles of Res judicata to be applied to the prior French judgment.

        After a nonjury trial judgment was rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and appellants holding that the prior French judgment did not control, and recovery was awarded to the estate of the deceased widow under applicable principles of substantive New York law. The Appellate Division modified the judgment, accorded Res judicata recognition to the prior French judgment and, in effect, awarded recovery to the heir of the deceased husband under the forced heirship rules of France.

        The Appellate Division was correct in according such recognition to the French judgment and its order should be affirmed. There are two issues which require discussion. First, what consequence shall ensue at this stage in the litigation, as a result of the failure of both the parties and the courts below to have raised or considered the equivalent principle of Res judicata in determining the effect of a French judgment in France. The second issue is whether the parties in the New York action had been the same or in privity with the parties in the French litigation. Although the second issue was discussed at the Appellate Division it would appear to be useful to elaborate somewhat beyond its analysis.

        Aristide Lanari, an Italian citizen, and his second wife, Roberta, an American citizen, both domiciled in France, opened

Page 274

a New York City office of the Swiss bank a purportedly joint bank account with right of survivorship. The documents dated in November, 1960 and signed by Aristide and Roberta provided that Inter se they occupied the status of 'true' joint tenants, and, further, that the account should be governed by the laws of the State of New York (see Wyatt v. Fulrath, 16 N.Y.2d 169, 264 N.Y.S.2d 233, 211 N.E.2d 637).

        Upon Aristide's death in September, 1961, the widow requested the bank to turn over the balance of the account to her as surviving joint tenant. Before the bank could comply, it received notice from Mrs. [317 N.Y.S.2d 318] Maria Elena Meyer, the decedent's only child, a daughter by his first wife, that she claimed the fund.

        Before any action was taken in New York, the daughter sought a declaratory judgment against the widow in an appropriate French court that the funds in New York were part of Aristide's estate and that the widow had no rights to them. Under the forced heirship law of France, it was not possible for Aristide to donate to his wife more than one fourth of his assets. Any attempted transfer in violation of this statute is void in its entirety upon the challenge of a child of a first marriage (33 A.D.2d 102, 103, 305 N.Y.S.2d 233, 234). One month later, on April 5, 1962, the widow instituted this action in New York against the bank to compel a turnover of the funds. The daughter and an ancillary administrator of Aristide Lanari's estate were interpleaded by the bank. Shortly after the appearances in both actions, the widow died, leaving as legatees three sisters to whom she bequeathed her entire estate, except for two legacies to others of $10,000 each. In the French action the sisters were substituted as defendants and continued its defense. The French action proceeded to a determination in favor of the daughter. In the New York action the executors of the widow's estate were substituted as plaintiffs. The widow's executors are respectively husbands of two of her legatee sisters.

        Plaintiffs and appellants, the executors of the widow, argue that they should not be precluded by the French judgment. They contend that there was no substantial identity of parties or issues in the two actions, and, assuming Arguendo that there was an identity of parties and issues, public policy forbids recognition of the foreign judgment.

Page 275

        Preliminarily, the law of the rendering jurisdiction, insofar as it limits the effect of its own judgments, would also limit elsewhere the preclusive effect of the judgment and the definition of the parties bound. At least this is true as to recognition of judgments between States of the Union (Langerman v. Langerman, 303 N.Y. 465, 473--474, 104 N.E.2d 857, 860--861; Restatement, 2d, Conflict of Laws (Proposed Official Draft, Part I, May 2, 1967), § 94, Comment C; Ehrenzweig, Conflict of Laws, § 66). A Fortiori, the limitation should apply to extranational judgments (Schoenbrod v. Siegler, 20 N.Y.2d 403, 409, 283 N.Y.S.2d 887, 885, 230 N.E.2d 638, 641; cf. Ehrenzweig, Op. cit., supra, § 67, Restatement, 2d, Conflict of Laws (Proposed Official Draft, Part I, May 2, 1967), § 98, Comment F; Smit, International Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel in the United States, 9 U.C.L.A.L.Rev. 44, 62--63; von Mehren and Trautman, Recognition of Foreign Adjudications: A Survey and a Suggested Approach, 81 Harv.L.Rev. 1601, 1677--1678). The burden of proof in establishing the conclusive effect in the rendering jurisdiction of a prior judgment is upon the party asserting [317 N.Y.S.2d 319] it (Marine Tr. Corp. v. Switzerland Gen. Ins. Co.,263 N.Y. 139, 147, 188 N.E. 281, 284; Jasper v. Rozinski,...

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