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PENSIONSVERSICHERUNGSANSTALT v. TURNER

United States District Court, S.D. New York


July 2, 2004.

PENSIONSVERSICHERUNGSANSTALT, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC TURNER, et al., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD HOLWELL, District Judge

Memorandum Opinion and Order

Plaintiff and Counterclaim Defendant Pensionsversicherunganstalt ("PVA") commenced this action against Defendant and Counterclaim Plaintiff Eric Turner ("Turner") to recover pension monies that were allegedly retained illegally by his mother ("Decedent"). Turner answered and filed counterclaims alleging violation of international law, conversion, and unjust enrichment, also seeking an accounting for actions by the Austrian government while under Nazi rule. PVA has moved to dismiss the counterclaims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons stated below, PVA's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

  This matter originated in state court. The original action was brought against Eric Turner personally and/or as distributee and/or legatee of the estate of Decedent, as well as the estate of Decedent and JP Morgan Chase Bank ("Chase"). The claims against the estate of Decedent set forth in the original complaint were voluntarily dismissed without prejudice. (Compl. ¶ 4.) The claims against Chase were settled and Chase was severed from the action. (Id. ¶ 5.) The claims against Turner survived and were removed to this Court on February 27, 2004.

  On January 29, 2004, before the action was removed to this Court, Turner filed counterclaims. The following facts are alleged in substance in the counterclaims and are presumed true for the purposes of this motion. Turner was born in Austria, where he and his family lived prior to World War II. (Answer, Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims ¶ 9 (hereinafter "Countercl.").) In the years before World War II, Turner and his parents accumulated private assets in Austria. (Id. ¶ 11.) Those assets were systematically confiscated as Austria came under Nazi rule because Turner's family was Jewish. (Id. ¶ 15.) The Austrian government has never compensated nor attempted to compensate Turner for the assets taken from him and his parents. (Id. ¶ 25.)

  Turner alleges four causes of action against PVA. (Id. ¶¶ 28-48.) The first cause of action demands an accounting, constructive trust, disgorgement, and restitution for the alleged acts of the Austrian government. (Id. ¶ 30.) The second cause of action demands relief and remedies under principles of international law for the injuries Turner suffered as a result of the Austrian government's alleged violation of those laws. (Id. ¶ 38.) The third cause of action demands restitution and damages for allegedly converted assets. (Id. ¶ 42, 45.) The fourth cause of action demands damages for the Austrian government's alleged unjust enrichment. (Id. ¶ 48.)

  On March 3, 2004, PVA filed a motion to dismiss Turner's counterclaims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Turner lacked standing. Specifically, PVA argues that an estate cannot file suit in the absence of the appointment of a personal representative or trustee. (See Mem. of Law in Supp. at 6.) Turner responds that he is not suing on behalf of the estate, but rather in his individual capacity for damages "in his own right as well as his right to inherit Estate assets." (Opp'n at 3.) In reply, PVA argues (1) that the counterclaims fail to allege any basis for a claim for lost assets, (2) that Turner has no standing to sue as an heir to Decedent's estate, and (3) that there is no basis to impute a direct claim to Turner. (See Reply Decl. at 2-3.) The Court addresses these arguments below.

  DISCUSSION

  In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court is required to read a complaint generously, accepting all the alleged facts as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the complainant. See LaBounty v. Adler, 933 F.2d 121, 123 (2d Cir. 1991). The court must deny the motion unless it appears beyond a doubt that the complainant can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief. See Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

  The Court first addresses whether Turner has standing to sue as an heir or otherwise for damages in his right to inherit assets. According to New York law, "legatees and beneficiaries thereof have no independent cause of action either in their own right or in the right of the estate to recover estate property." Wierdsma v. Markwood Corp., 53 A.D.2d 581, 582, 384 N.Y.S.2d 836, 837 (N.Y.App.Div. 1976). This prohibition applies to heirs who are suing for damages resulting from a diminished inheritance.*fn1 See Orentreich v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 275 A.D.2d 685, 686, 713 N.Y.S.2d 330, 332 (N.Y.App.Div. 2000) (citing Wierdsma); cf. Lefkowitz v. Bank of N.Y., No. 01 Civ. 6252, 2003 WL 22480049, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 31, 2003) ("Typically, when a testator dies, the executor, not the beneficiary, acquires standing to pursue claims on behalf of the testator and the estate."). Thus, Turner cannot bring claims in "his right to inherit Estate assets."*fn2 (Opp'n at 3.)

  However, the Court holds that Turner has standing so far as his counterclaims are brought in his individual capacity for harm done to him. To the extent that Turner has personally suffered an injury in fact, that gives him standing to sue for converted assets, unjust enrichment, violation of international law, and to seek an accounting. See Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for Separation of Church & State, 454 U.S. 464, 472 (1982).

  That brings the Court to PVA's remaining argument that the counterclaims fail to allege any basis for a claim for lost assets. At this stage of the litigation, the Court finds that Turner has sufficiently alleged facts to state a claim in his individual capacity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) requires a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P.8(a)(2). Complainants are not required to "set out in detail the facts on which the claim is based," nor to provide detailed estimates of alleged damages. 2 James Wm.Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 8.04(1) (3d ed. 1999). They must only "provide a sufficient statement to put the opposing party on notice of the claim." Id. In his counterclaims, Turner has pled the required elements of all four causes of action sufficient to satisfy the pleading standard set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and 12(b)(6). Specifically, Turner alleges that he possessed assets that were illegally confiscated prior to World War II. Whether Turner can offer sufficient proof to establish this claim is an issue that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss. Nor is the Court called upon to determine whether any such claims are barred on other grounds, including the operation of any applicable international conventions.

  CONCLUSION

  For the foregoing reasons, PVA's motion to dismiss [3-1] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Turner's counterclaims are dismissed to the extent they are brought "in his right to inherit Estate assets." Turner retains the right to sue PVA in his individual capacity.

  SO ORDERED.


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