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UNITED STATES v. NEW SILVER PALACE RESTAURANT

November 25, 1992

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
THE NEW SILVER PALACE RESTAURANT, INC., D.B.A. GRAND PALACE RESTAURANT, ALL FIXTURES, INVENTORY, ASSETS AND APPURTENANCES BELONGING THERETO, Defendants.


Glasser


The opinion of the court was delivered by: I. LEO GLASSER

GLASSER, United States District Judge.

 On October 18, 1989, the government commenced this in rem action against The New Silver Palace Restaurant, Inc. ("New Silver Palace"), seeking forfeiture of the Grand Palace Restaurant and the fixtures, inventory, assets and appurtenances of the restaurant (collectively "in rem defendants") under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) and (a)(7) and 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(A). The complaint alleges that the restaurant was used to facilitate drug transactions; that the restaurant represents drug proceeds; and that the restaurant's manager, Foo Wing Yam, attempted to launder drug proceeds, and was involved in a money laundering scheme, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i) and (a)(1)(B)(ii).

 On October 19, 1989, the in rem defendants were arrested pursuant to a seizure warrant. Thereupon, twenty-six shareholders of New Silver Palace filed timely notices of claim. *fn1" On December 28, 1989, the parties stipulated to an interlocutory sale of the in rem defendants, and for those proceeds to be deposited in an interest-bearing account pending final determination of this action. Plaintiff now moves for judgment on the pleadings for an order of this Court dismissing the shareholders' notices of claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that the shareholders lack standing to challenge this forfeiture action. For the following reasons, the government's motion is granted.

 DISCUSSION

 Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "after the pleadings are closed but within such time as not to delay trial, any party may move for judgment on the pleadings. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(1) provides that a complaint may be dismissed upon motion for "lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter" of the action. A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction can certainly be raised via a Rule 12(c) motion. 5A Charles Alan Wright and Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1367, at 515 (1990). In deciding a motion under Rule 12(c), the court should apply the same standard as that applicable to a motion under Rule 12(b)(1). Id. at 515-16; cf. Ad-Hoc Comm. of Baruch Black & Hispanic Alumni Ass'n v. Bernard M. Baruch College, 835 F.2d 980, 982 (2d Cir. 1987) (citing treatise and applying same standard to Rule 12(c) motion for failure to state a claim as standard applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motion); Madonna v. United States, 878 F.2d 62, 65 (2d Cir. 1989) (same). In this case, the shareholders' notices of claim are dismissed because this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over their claims.

 A claimant who challenges the government's forfeiture of money or property under a federal statute "must first demonstrate an interest in the seized item sufficient to satisfy the court of its standing to contest the forfeiture." United States v. $ 364,960.00 in U.S. Currency, 661 F.2d 319, 326 (5th Cir. 1981). If the claimant cannot show a "sufficient interest in the property to give him Article III standing" . . . there is no 'case or controversy,' in the constitutional sense, capable of adjudication in the federal courts." United States v. $ 38,000.00 in United States Currency, 816 F.2d 1538, 1543 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted); see also United States v. Property at 4492 S. Livonia Rd., 889 F.2d 1258, 1262 (2d Cir. 1989) (citing id.), reh'g denied, 897 F.2d 659 (2d Cir. 1990). It is the claimant who bears the burden of demonstrating standing. United States v. Real Property & Improvements Located at 5000 Palmettto Drive, 928 F.2d 373, 375 (11th Cir. 1991); Mercado v. U.S. Customs Service, 873 F.2d 641, 644 (2d Cir. 1989).

 The statutes under which the government seeks to forfeit the in rem defendants contain an "innocent owner" defense. Section 981(a)(2) of Title 18 provides:

 No property shall be forfeited under [§ 981(a)(1)] to the extent of the interest of an owner or lienholder by reason of any act or omission established by that owner or lienholder to have been committed without the knowledge of that owner or lienholder.

 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(2) (emphasis added). Similarly, the innocent owner defense provisions of sections 881(a)(6) and (a)(7) contain the following language:

 except that no property shall be forfeited under [] paragraph [(a)(6) and (a)(7)], to the extent of an interest of an owner, by reason of any act or omission established by that owner to have been committed or omitted without the knowledge or consent of that owner.

 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) and (a)(7) (emphasis added).

 In order to have standing to challenge the forfeiture of the restaurant and to assert an innocent owner defense, the shareholders must be considered owners (or lienholders with respect to the § 981 forfeiture) of the in rem defendants. Since the shareholder claimants are neither owners nor lienholders with respect to corporate assets, they have no standing in this forfeiture proceeding. *fn2" The Second Circuit has recognized that "shareholders do not hold legal title to any of the corporation's assets. Instead, the corporation -- the entity itself -- is vested with the title." United States v. Wallach, 935 F.2d 445, 462 (2d Cir. 1991) (citing 5A Fletcher Cyclopedia of the Law of Private Corporations § 2213, at 323 (Perm. ed. 1990)); Boise Cascade Corp. v. Wheeler, 419 F. Supp. 98, 101-02 (S.D.N.Y. 1976) (stock ownership does not "transfer title to corporate property" and does not equal ownership of corporate assets), aff'd, 556 F.2d 554 (2d Cir. 1977). Likewise, it is axiomatic that shareholders have an equity interest in the corporation, but do not possess a lien against corporate assets. 14 N.Y. Jur. 2d § 573 (1981); Cass v. Realty Secur. Co., 148 A.D. 96, 100-101, 132 N.Y.S. 1074, 1078 (1st Dep't 1911), aff'd, 206 N.Y. 649, 99 N.E. 1105 (1912). Therefore, since shareholders are not legal owners or lienholders of the corporation's assets, they lack standing to intervene to claim the sales proceeds of the in rem defendants.

 The shareholder claimants contend that they have standing because the right to intervene in a forfeiture proceeding "extends to any person or party having a legally recognized interest in the [seized item], whether he is owner or lienholder, and whether that interest is legal or equitable in nature." United States v. One 1961 Cadillac Hardtop Automobile, 207 F. Supp. 693, 698 (E.D. Tenn. 1962) (emphasis supplied), ...


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