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KIELHURN v. GIAMMARINARO

April 27, 2001

ANNETTE KIELHURN, PLAINTIFF,
V.
CLAUDIA GIAMMARINARO AND BEVERLY ROSSI, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Spatt, District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

On January 19, 2001, a jury reached a unanimous verdict in this case, finding in favor of the plaintiff Annette Kielhurn ("Kielhurn" or the "plaintiff") on the breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, and unjust enrichment causes of action against the defendant Claudia Giammarinaro ("Giammarinaro" or a "defendant"). In addition, in the unjust enrichment cause of action against the defendant Beverly Rossi ("Rossi" or a "defendant"), the jury found in favor of Rossi. Lastly, the jury found in favor of Giammarinaro on the constructive trust cause of action. Presently before the Court are: (1) Kielhurn's motion for judgment as a matter of law in her favor on the constructive trust cause of action; (2) Kielhurn's application for an injunction preventing Giammarinaro from selling, transferring, or altering the property located at 21 East Halley Lane in Central Islip, New York; (3) Giammarinaro's motion to reduce the amount of compensatory damages awarded on the conversion cause of action to an amount not exceeding the sum of $4000; and (4) Giammarinaro's motion to set aside the punitive damages award.

I. BACKGROUND

Briefly stated, Kielhurn and Giammarinaro had an intimate relationship that began in late 1992 and ended approximately four years later. During most of that time, Kielhurn lived with Giammarinaro in a house Giammarinaro owned jointly with her mother, Rossi, that was located at 21 East Halley Lane in Central Islip, New York. Kielhurn and Giammarinaro had joint bank accounts. Kielhurn testified that she gave Giammarinaro a 5% ownership interest in her cleaning business, which was called, "Ace Island Cleaners." She further stated that Giammarinaro had signing privileges on the Ace Island checking account, so that Giammarinaro could help her run the business when she was overworked. Kielhurn drew a salary from the Ace Island checking account.

In addition, Kielhurn claimed that she and Giammarinaro made mutual promises regarding the ownership of real estate. The plaintiff testified that on September 30, 1993, she transferred an interest in property located in Ocala, Florida (the "Ocala property") to Giammarinaro based on Giammarinaro's promise to convey an interest in the premises located at 21 East Halley Lane. However, when Kielhurn and Giammarinaro sought to transfer Rossi's interest in 21 East Halley Lane to Kielhurn, the bank denied Kielhurn's mortgage application. Because Kielhurn could not obtain part ownership of the house at 21 East Halley Lane, she asked Giammarinaro to convey her interest in the Ocala property back to Kielhurn, and she did so. Thereafter, on August 7, 1995, Kielhurn again was the sole owner of the Ocala property.

Because 21 East Halley Lane was her primary residence, Kielhurn moved her personal property into the house. During the trial, various witnesses stated that the following specific items belonging to Kielhurn were located at 21 East Halley Lane: a sofa, a chair, clothing, jewelry, a piano, two motorcycles, a pick-up truck, and a boat.

On July 29, 1996, the plaintiff was arrested in Virginia for possessing narcotics. Subsequently, she was convicted of a felony and served approximately three years in prison. Kielhurn claimed that after her arrest, she was emotionally distraught and asked Giammarinaro to manage her financial affairs while she was incarcerated. Moreover, Kielhurn explained that she trusted Giammarinaro to do so. In particular, Kielhurn stated that she asked Giammarinaro to oversee: (1) the Ocala property; (2) the sale of her interest in a coffee shop called St. John's Caterers; and (3) the Ace Island checking account. Kielhurn also trusted Giammarinaro to maintain the personal property that Kielhurn had left at 21 East Halley Lane. On October 18, 1996, Kielhurn conveyed the Ocala property to Giammarinaro, because she could not manage the property while incarcerated. Kielhurn alleged that while she was incarcerated, Giammarinaro sold the Ocala property to Kielhurn's estranged former brother-in-law for $10; signed checks on the Ace Island checking account to pay for her personal expenses; and kept proceeds from the sale of Kielhurn's interest in St. John's Caterers.

Several months after her arrest, Kielhurn was transferred from state to federal custody. She testified that she could not bring any personal belongings with her to federal prison and, therefore, gave Giammarinaro a diamond ring to safeguard. The plaintiff also stated that while she was in prison, her family tried to collect her personal property from 21 East Halley Lane, but Giammarinaro refused to return the property. Kielhurn also asserted that after she was released from custody, she attempted to retrieve her personal property, but Giammarinaro still refused to return it. Among the items that Giammarinaro purportedly retained control of were: the diamond ring Kielhurn allegedly entrusted to her; two motorcycles, a boat, furniture, a computer, and all of Kielhurn's clothing.

Following eight days of trial, five causes of action were submitted to the jury: (1) constructive trust against defendant Giammarinaro with regard to the Central Islip property; (2) breach of fiduciary duty against defendant Giammarinaro; (3) conversion against defendant Giammarinaro; (4) unjust enrichment against defendant Giammarinaro; and (5) unjust enrichment against defendant Rossi. As stated above, the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant Giammarinaro on the constructive trust cause of action. However, the jury found in favor of Kielhurn on the breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, and unjust enrichment causes of action as against defendant Giammarinaro. In regard to the unjust enrichment cause of action against defendant Rossi, the jury found in favor of that defendant.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

At the outset, the Court notes that Kielhurn has chosen to represent herself throughout all aspects of this case, including the trial and the current motions. The Court is therefore mindful that Kielhurn's submissions should be held "`to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9, 101 S.Ct. 173, 176, 66 L.Ed.2d 163 (1980) (per curiam) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972)); see also Ferran v. Town of Nassau, 11 F.3d 21, 22 (2d Cir. 1993). The Court recognizes that it must make reasonable allowances so that a pro se plaintiff does not forfeit rights by virtue of her lack of legal training. See Traguth v. Zuck, 710 F.2d 90, 95 (2d Cir. 1983). Indeed, District Courts should "read the pleadings of a pro se plaintiff liberally and interpret them `to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'" McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276, 280 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994)). Nevertheless, the Court is also aware that pro se status "`does not exempt a party from compliance with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law.'" Traguth, 710 F.2d at 95 (quoting Birl v. Estelle, 660 F.2d 592, 593 (5th Cir. 1981)).

Neither Kielhurn nor Giammarinaro cites to authority under which she brings the instant motions. However, three of the four applications appear to be post-verdict motions for judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, except for the plaintiffs request for an injunction, the Court will treat the current motions as if they had been brought pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Fed.R.Civ.P.").

A court decides a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1) using the same standard that applies to motions for summary judgment. See Alfaro v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 210 F.3d 111 (2d Cir. 2000). Specifically, the motion must be denied unless the court finds that there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's finding could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or if the evidence is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair minded persons could only have reached the opposite result. See Ryduchowski v. Port Authority of New York, 203 F.3d 135, 141-42 (2d Cir. 2000); see also This is Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139 (2d Cir. 1998); Concerned Area Residents for the Environment v. Southview Farm, 34 F.3d 114 (2d Cir. 1994); Weldy v. Piedmont Airlines, 985 F.2d 57 (2d Cir. 1993). In making this determination, the court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of, and to resolve all credibility disputes to the benefit of the non-moving party. See Ryduchowski, 203 F.3d at 142; Martinelli v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 196 F.3d 409, 425 (2d Cir. 1999); Stagl v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 117 F.3d 76, 79 (2d Cir. 1997).

B. As to the Constructive Trust Cause of Action

Although the doctrine is to be applied flexibly, the elements that must be proven to establish a constructive trust are: "(1) a confidential or fiduciary relation, (2) a promise, (3) a transfer in reliance thereon and (4) unjust enrichment." Sharp v. Kosmalski, 40 N.Y.2d 119, 123, 386 N.Y.S.2d 72, 75, 351 N.E.2d 721 (1976); see Counihan v. Allstate Ins. Co., 194 F.3d 357, 361-62 (2d Cir. 1999); Satler v. Merlis, 252 A.D.2d 551, 551, 675 N.Y.S.2d 644, 645-46 (2d Dept. 1998); Whalen v. Harvey, 235 A.D.2d 792, ...


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