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U.S. v. MCELVENNY

United States District Court, Southern District of New York


March 31, 2003

UNITED STATES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RALPH MCELVENNY, THE JOHN F. KENNEDY MUSEUM FOUNDATION, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: John S. Martin, Jr., United States District Judge

OPINION & ORDER

This is an action for replevin by the United States against Ralph McElvenny and the John F. Kennedy Museum Foundation (the "Foundation") seeking to recover a map of Cuba annotated by President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the "Map") and materials annotated by the President in connection with James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi (the "Meredith Materials"). The Government claims ownership of the materials pursuant to a deed executed by the trustees and executors of President Kennedy's estate (the "Deed"). Defendants assert that they are the rightful owners of the materials because the Deed does not apply to the Map or the Meredith Materials and is, in any case, invalid.

Defendants have moved to dismiss this case pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion to dismiss is denied.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

After President Kennedy's assassination, Jacqueline B. Kennedy, as beneficiary under the President's will and as trustee and executor of his estate, and Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, as trustees and executors of the President's estate, executed a deed donating to the United States for deposit in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (the "Kennedy Library") the "papers, documents, historical materials, mementos, objects of art, and other memorabilia . . . hereinafter called `Materials,' formerly belonging to and relating to the life and work of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and which he intended should be so deposited."

The donors relinquished title to the donated materials pursuant to the Deed which provided in part:

the `Donors,' hereby convey, assign, give, and donate to the United States of America, hereinafter called the `Donee,' effective as of November 22, 1963, and subject to the conditions and restrictions hereinafter set forth, all of our right, title, and interest to the Materials above described, hereinafter called `Materials,' as our right, title, and interest may appear, including but not limited to those Materials now stored at the White House, the Executive Office Building, The National Archives Building, or at such other place or places where such Materials may be found . . .
(emphasis added).

The Deed placed the following restrictions on the materials donated:

(i) This gift and transfer shall not and is not intended to apply to or embrace such items as John Fitzgerald Kennedy had not intended to be deposited in said Presidential archival depository, or which are determined by the Donors to be of special or private interest to the personal, family and business affairs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his wife and children, parents, brothers and sisters.
(ii) The Donors shall have and specifically reserve the right to retain title and possession and to regain possession of any items that the Donors in their sole discretion may determine in accordance with this paragraph the Third are excluded from the purview of this gift, irrespective of the fact that such items may have been theretofore delivered to the Donee.
(iii) For the purposes of effectuating the provisions of subparagraphs (i) and (ii) of this paragraph the Third, the Donors shall have and specifically reserve the right to examine, at any time or from time to time prior to January 1, 1967, either themselves or through authorized representatives, any Materials from time to time in the possession or custody or under the control of the Donee, and wheresoever the same may be situated, for the purpose of determining and designating any such Materials as being excluded from the purview of this gift, provided, however, that examination of security-classified information shall be in accordance with applicable law or Executive Order relating to security-classified defense information.
(emphasis added).

The Administrator of the General Services Administration accepted the gift on behalf of the United States on or about February 25, 1965.

The Government alleges that a collector named Robert White acquired the Map from the President's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who improperly took the Map*fn1 and other materials that the donors intended to give to the United States pursuant to the Deed. Lincoln had access to the materials as the President's personal secretary and later as an employee of the Kennedy Library.

McElvenny obtained the Map in or after 1995 and the Meredith Materials in or before 2000. McElvenny donated the Meredith Materials to the Foundation in 2000.*fn2

DISCUSSION

The essential elements of a valid gift are: (1) intention on the part of the donor to make a gift; (2) delivery of the gift; and (3) acceptance of the gift by the donee. In re Roosevelt's Will, 73 N.Y.S.2d 821, 824 (1947). "Where there is no actual manual delivery, the gift may be completed by instrument in writing." Id. at 825. Moreover, acceptance of a gift is assumed when it is of value. In re Estate of Partos, 611 N.Y.S.2d 30, 31 (1994).

A. Scope of the Deed

Defendants initially argue that the Deed's general directive that materials which the President intended to be deposited in the Kennedy Library be donated to the United States does not manifest donative intent because it is vague and "[does] not make reference to the Map [or the Meredith Materials] at issue herein, or, for that matter, to any specific document." The Deed's grant of materials, though broad, is specific as to the type of materials to be donated and as to where those materials are likely to be found. The Deed states that it applies to all "papers, documents, historical materials, mementos, objects of art, and other memorabilia . . . formerly belonging to and relating to the life and work of John Fitzgerald Kennedy . . ." that are located "at the White House, the Executive Office Building, The National Archives Building, or at such other place or places were such Materials may be found." In a similar case, a New York court held that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a valid inter vivos gift of his papers to the United States despite the absence of a written deed or other instrument. In re Roosevelt's Will, 73 N.Y.S.2d 821, 824 (1947). The Court inferred the "intention on the part of Mr. Roosevelt to make the gift . . . from his writings, oral statements and conduct." Id. at 825. The Court also based the validity of the gift on a report of the House of Representatives' Committee on the Library which described the gift in broad terms, stating that it included "practically all of Mr. Roosevelt's" correspondence. Id. at 824.

President Roosevelt's gift of his papers was valid though it did not itemize each piece of the President's correspondence. Similarly, the Deed here is not invalid for vagueness simply because it fails to itemize the materials belonging to President Kennedy which the donors intended to donate to the United States.

It is important to note that this case is not like most cases where an alleged verbal gift has been made and the donor's intent is not clear. Here, there is a specific document manifesting a clear intention to donate the bulk of President Kennedy's papers to the United States. Unlike the cases cited by the Defendants*fn3, the Deed here contains direct language describing the materials donated so that there is no doubt as to the intention to make a gift.

Absent evidence of an intent to exclude the Map or the Meredith Materials from the gift, the Deed's broad grant applies to these materials which are clearly "historical materials . . . formerly belonging to and relating to the life and work of John Fitzgerald Kennedy . . ." and which are not of a personal nature. The Defendants may be able to show that President Kennedy or the donors intended to give Lincoln these materials or otherwise exclude them from the purview of the Deed, but absent such proof, the Deed's broad grant will suffice to show that it applies to the Map and the Meredith Materials and consequently, that these items belong to the United States.

B. Validity of the Deed

Defendants also argue that the Deed is invalid because the donors retained title to the materials donated and can regain possession of them at any time, pursuant to subparagraph (iii). "To make a valid inter vivos gift the donor must intend to make an irrevocable present transfer of ownership . . ." Estate of Partos, 203 N.Y.S.2d 30, 31 (2d Dep't 1994). See also Mongelli v. Cabral, 632 N.Y.S.2d 927, 928-929 (1995). The "delivery must be such as to vest the donee with control and dominion over the subject matter of the gift, and to absolutely divest the donor of his dominion and control . . ." Scheideler v. Scheideler, 236 N.Y.S.2d 871, 873 (1962). See also Jackson v. Twenty-Third Street Railway Co., 88 N.Y. 520 (1882).

Here, the donors relinquished title to the donated materials pursuant to the Deed, which clearly states that "the `Donors,' hereby convey, assign, give, and donate to the United States of America . . . all of our right, title, and interest to the Materials . . ."*fn4 Subparagraph (iii) provides the donors with the right to examine materials already in the Government's possession at any time prior to January 1, 1967 in order to determine if they are to be excluded from the Deed pursuant to the restrictions set forth in subparagraphs (i) and (ii). As to title, subparagraph (iii) merely states the obvious — that is, the donors retain title to those items belonging to President Kennedy that they did not intend to give to the Government pursuant to the Deed, and establishes procedures for the retrieval of those items. The donors did not retain title to materials already donated to the Government. They retained title for a limited time to any materials in the Government's possession which were not subject to the Deed and which the donors therefore had the right to recover.

The delivery required to make a valid gift "`must be such as to vest the donee with control and dominion over the property . . . [although] this requirement must be tailored to suit the circumstances of the case.'" Kaulbach v. Keoseian, 783 F. Supp. 170, 175 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (quoting In re Szabo, 10 N.Y.2d 94, 98 (1961)). Under the circumstances here, the donors' reservation of a limited right to examine materials in the Government's possession in order to exclude items not subject to the Deed is appropriate. The Deed made a broad gift of voluminous materials which were, for the most part, already in the Government's possession at the time the gift was made.

CONCLUSION

The Deed is a valid instrument pursuant to which materials relating to the life and work of President Kennedy were donated to the United States and unless the evidence shows otherwise, the Deed applies to the Map and the Meredith Materials. The Government has therefore stated a claim upon which relief may be granted and the Defendants' motion to dismiss is denied.

SO ORDERED.


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