Lacks v. Fahmi

Decision Date16 June 1980
Docket NumberNo. 587,D,587
Citation623 F.2d 254
PartiesIrene R. LACKS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Youssef FAHMI and Janet F. Cotton, Defendants-Appellees. ocket 79-7451.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Irene R. Lacks, pro se.

Adrian H. Courtenay, New York City, for plaintiff-appellant.

Thomas G. Shack, Jr., Nicholas J. Glakas, Abourezk, Shack & Mendenhall, Washington D. C., Robert P. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Soriano, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, New York City, of counsel, for defendant-appellee Youssef Fahmi.

Before WATERMAN and MANSFIELD, Circuit Judges, and BONSAL, District Judge. *


Mrs. Irene R. Lacks, plaintiff-appellant, appeals from certain orders entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Morris E. Lasker, District Judge) on March 23 and May 4, 1979, dismissing her complaint and issuing a permanent injunction directing her not to institute any further lawsuits concerning the matter in question. We affirm the orders of the District Court.

The present lawsuit is an outgrowth of the marital discord prevailing between Mrs. Lacks and her former husband for over a quarter of a century, and revolves around certain provisions of an agreement executed by the couple in 1959. That agreement provided, inter alia, that Mrs. Lacks would release to her husband any beneficial interest she might have in certain of Mr. Lacks's business enterprises, in return for which Mr. Lacks was to deed to his wife, free of any encumbrances, all title and interest to a Manhattan townhouse which was owned by the couple as tenants by the entirety. Unhappily for Mrs. Lacks, that agreement also contained a clause obligating Mr. Lacks to pay his wife a certain sum of money annually in lieu of providing for her support and maintenance. 1

Mr. Lacks subsequently reneged on his part of the agreement. He alleged that his wife had failed to make mortgage and tax payments on the townhouse, and he instituted an action in the New York state court system to force the sale of the property in satisfaction of these debts. Mrs. Lacks raised the terms of the agreement as a defense, and counterclaimed for specific performance of her husband's obligation to convey the property to her. In this initial state court action the court held that inclusion of the objectionable support and maintenance clause rendered the entire agreement void, which in turn required the dismissal of Mrs. Lacks's defense and counterclaim. As a result, representatives of the Government of Iran purchased the townhouse for $342,500 at a later court-sanctioned foreclosure sale.

On Mrs. Lacks's appeal from this adverse state court decision, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, found the support and maintenance clause to be severable, thus validating the remainder of the agreement, and concluded that Mrs. Lacks was entitled to possession of the townhouse. However, because of the intervening sale of the property to the Iranian Government, the court assumed that the Government of Iran most likely would assert "a claim of sovereign or diplomatic immunity" to frustrate Mrs. Lacks's attempt to regain possession of the townhouse. Accordingly, the court determined that specific performance was not a desirable remedy, and instead directed that Mr. Lacks account for and pay to his wife the proceeds of the foreclosure sale. 2 See Lacks v. Lacks, 39 App.Div. 485, 488-89, 336 N.Y.S.2d 874, 878-79 (1972).

In addition to these state court proceedings involving Mrs. Lacks and her husband, Mrs. Lacks sought to obtain the return of the townhouse on two other occasions in the state courts. In the first of these, Mrs. Lacks commenced suit against, among others the Consul General of Iran, seeking to invalidate the foreclosure sale and to return possession of the townhouse to her. The New York Supreme Court dismissed her complaint on three grounds: (1) the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1351 3 conferred on the United States courts exclusive jurisdiction over all actions and proceedings against consuls or vice-consuls; (2) the provisions of a treaty then in effect between the United States and Iran granted the Iranian Consul General immunity from jurisdiction for the matters alleged in Mrs. Lacks's complaint; and (3) the doctrine of collateral estoppel barred Mrs. Lacks from relitigating matters that had been the subject of a prior state court proceeding. See Lacks v. Sepahbodi, 78 Misc.2d 582, 584-85, 356 N.Y.S.2d 949, 951-52 (Sup.Ct.1974).

On the second occasion, upon discovering that the City of New York had purported to take title to the subject premises in an in rem proceeding for nonpayment of taxes, Mrs. Lacks instituted an action to enjoin the City from reconveying the property to the Government of Iran and to compel its transfer to her. The Supreme Court of New York County dismissed Mrs. Lacks's complaint, pointing out the collateral estoppel effects of the prior state court proceedings, and concurring in the reasoning advanced in the previous state court action respecting the jurisdictional immunity of the Iranian officials occupying the townhouse. See Lacks v. City of New York, 178 N.Y.L.J. 7, col. 1 (Sup.Ct. Nov. 16, 1977), aff'd, 63 App.Div. 869, 404 N.Y.S.2d 936 (1978).

Finally, once more seeking to regain possession of the townhouse, Mrs. Lacks commenced the present action in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Iranian consular officials and Janet Cotton, the referee appointed to conduct the foreclosure sale in the original state court proceeding. The District Court granted all defendants' motions to dismiss the complaint, holding that, in light of the prior state court proceedings involving the same matters, Mrs. Lacks's claims were barred by the principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel, as well as by the obligation of federal courts to give full faith and credit to the determinations of state courts. Also, the District Court granted defendants' motion for the entry of a permanent injunction barring Mrs. Lacks from instituting any similar lawsuits in the future.

On this appeal, Mrs. Lacks correctly points out that, to the extent the state court judgments rested on determinations as to the Iranian consular officials' entitlement to assert a claim of sovereign immunity in defense against the matters raised in her complaints, those judgments cannot possess any res judicata or collateral estoppel effect. It is elementary that a judgment entered in an action over which the court lacks jurisdiction cannot be afforded any binding force. See, e. g., Boston & Me. R. R. v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 268 N.Y. 382, 391, 197 N.E. 321, 324 (1935). By the plain language of 28 U.S.C. § 1351, once a state court has determined that only a federal court is empowered to adjudicate a controversy, the state court need not and should not consider issues going to the...

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