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Republic of Benin v. Mezei

March 21, 2007

REPUBLIC OF BENIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BEVERLY MEZEI, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Koeltl, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

This case involves a dispute over a plot of land located in Bronx County (the "Lot"). The Lot, at least at one time, was a back lot to the residence of the Ambassador to the Republic of Benin's United Nations Mission in New York. In October 2004, the land was purportedly sold to the defendant Robin Shimoff. The plaintiff, the Republic of Benin, alleges that the sale of the property to the defendant was unauthorized and seeks to void the transaction. Benin also seeks to void a subsequent deed, executed by Shimoff, conveying the Lot to the defendant Beverly Mezei.

Benin has moved for summary judgment against the defendants Shimoff and Mezei primarily on two grounds.*fn1 First, Benin argues that the deed that purported to convey the property to Shimoff was forged and is therefore void. Second, Benin argues that the conveyance to Shimoff was invalid under the Foreign Missions Act, 22 U.S.C. §§ 4301--4316.*fn2 The Court has jurisdiction of this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question jurisdiction) and 1332(a)(4) (diversity jurisdiction between a foreign state and citizens of a State or of different States). For the reasons discussed below, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied.

I.

On October 1, 2004, a deed was executed between the "REPUBLIC OF BENIN (formerly Republic of Dahomey) by THOMAS GUEDEGBE, Director of Administration, Ministry of Foreign affairs, Republic of Benin" and the defendant Robin Shimoff.

(See Aff. of Stanley Fischer, dated July 21, 2006 ("7/21/06 Fischer Aff."), Ex. 1-B (Ex. B to the Am. Compl.); Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts on Mot. for Summ. Judg. Pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 ("Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 4; Defendant Mezei's Counterstatement Pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 ("Defs.' 56.1 Stmt.")*fn3 ¶ 4.) The deed purported to convey a plot of land located in Bronx County, Block 5821, Lot 2804, to the defendant Shimoff. (See 7/21/06 Fischer Aff., Ex. 1-B; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2; Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2.) Public records reveal that Shimoff paid $650,000 for the Lot. (See Decl. of Todd Harris Hesekiel, dated Oct. 20, 2006 ("10/20/06 Hesekiel Decl."), ¶ 2(iii), Ex. A; Decl. of Edward R. Finklestein, dated Oct. 20, 2006 ("10/20/06 Finklestein Decl."), Ex. D.) A year later, on October 11, 2005, Shimoff executed a deed with the defendant Mezei, purporting to convey the Lot to Mezei for $1,250,000. (10/20/06 Finkelstein Decl., Ex. E; Decl. of Beverly Mezei, dated Sept. 29, 2006 ("Mezei Decl."), ¶¶ 2--3, attached to 10/20/06 Hezekiel Decl.)

It is undisputed that Benin formerly owned the land. The Republic of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) acquired the Lot in a deed dated March 25, 1963. (See 7/21/06 Fischer Aff., Ex. A.) The Republic of Benin is a Member State of the United Nations ("U.N."). (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1; Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1.) The Lot constituted a back lot to the personal residence of Benin's Ambassador to its United Nations Mission in New York. (Am. Compl. ¶ 9.) The central dispute in this case centers on the question of who presently owns Lot 2804. (See Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2; Defs. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2.)

Benin asserts, through its current Minister of Foreign Affairs, that no person was authorized to sell the Lot on Benin's behalf. (Statement of Mariam Aladji Boni Diallo, dated June 9, 2006 ("Diallo Stmt."), attached to 7/21/06 Fischer Aff.)*fn4

As such, according to Benin, the individual who signed the deed, Thomas Guedegbe, was acting without authority to enter into the transaction conveying Lot 2804. Benin claims that "[a]ny deed or agreement conveying the property constitutes a forgery with regard to Benin law." Id. Benin claims that it is prosecuting Thomas Guedegbe for engaging in the transaction at issue in this case, and that he is currently in detention pending trial. Id.

It is undisputed that no document granting Guedegbe authority to enter into the transaction was recorded with the county clerk or register pursuant to New York Real Property Law § 331. It is also undisputed that Benin never notified the Secretary of State that it intended to sell Lot 2804, as required by the Foreign Missions Act. Finally, it is undisputed that Thomas Guedegbe was the person who actually signed the October 1, 2004 deed as "THOMAS GUEDEGBE" on behalf of Benin; the plaintiff concedes that Guedegbe executed the October 1, 2004 deed. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 4, 6, 8; Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 4, 6, 8.)

The defendants, however, dispute Benin's contention that Guedegbe lacked authority to convey the property on behalf of Benin. (See Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 3, 5.) The attorney who allegedly represented the Republic of Benin during the October 2004 sale of the property stated that Rogetien Biaou, then Foreign Minister of the Republic of Benin, told him that the Beninese government authorized the transaction and that Thomas Guedegbe was authorized to execute all the relevant transaction documents. (Decl. of Alfred Koller, dated Sept. 29, 2006 ("Koller Decl."), attached to 10/20/06 Hesekiel Decl.)

The parties dispute whether Biaou himself, given his position as a Foreign Minister, had the power to dispose of the property on behalf of Benin. (See 10/20/06 Hezekiel Decl. ¶ 7; Decl. of Stanley H. Fischer, dated Nov. 13, 2006 ("11/13/06 Fischer Decl."), ¶ 4.) The defendant Mezei, for example, presents a letter from a Consulate Officer of Benin to the plaintiff's counsel that states: "The Government of Benin has engaged the responsibility of the former Ambassador and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the case because the property is under their authority." (Letter from Karimou Alfa Zerandouro to Stanley Fischer, dated Sept. 14, 2006, attached as Ex. E to 10/20/06 Hezekiel Decl. (emphasis added).) The plaintiff, on the other hand, presents excerpts from Benin law, which allegedly show that Biaou, as then Minister of Foreign Affairs and African Integration, was not responsible for the property. (11/13/06 Fischer Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. D.)

The plaintiff also offers evidence to rebut the defendants' claim that Biaou authorized Thomas Guedegbe to execute the October 1, 2004 deed. The plaintiff submits an "Affidavit of Non Transfer" of Biaou, in which Biaou states that the property "has never been subject to any transfer to any party or person by the State of Benin." (11/13/06 Fischer Decl., Ex. H.) However, Biaou's affidavit is cryptic. After stating that the property had never been subject to any transfer, Biaou concludes: "Therefore, this deed has been signed and stamped with the seal of the Republic of Benin." Id. It is unclear to what "deed" Biaou's statement refers, and it is unclear if the document is in fact a sworn statement by Biaou.

Finally, the defendant Mezei, who claims present ownership of the Lot pursuant to the October 11, 2005 deed executed by Shimoff, states that she had no knowledge of any fraudulent intent on the part of Shimoff or of any other fraud in the chain of title. (Mezei Decl. ¶ 4.) She states: "In fact, when I purchased the property, I believed that Shimoff had good title to it." Id.

II.

The standard for granting summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment may not be granted unless "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs. Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1223 (2d Cir. 1994). "[T]he trial court's task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution." Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1224. The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying the matter that it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The substantive law governing the case will identify those facts that are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1223. Summary judgment is improper if there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Chambers v. T.R.M. Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). If the moving party meets its initial burden of showing a lack of a material issue of fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The nonmoving party must produce evidence in the record and "may not rely simply on ...


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