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Walton v. Hadley

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 10, 2014

GEORGE M. HADLEY, Defendant.


EDGARDO RAMOS, District Judge.

This diversity action arises from a dispute over the ownership of a valuable piece of fine artwork by the renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Doc. 1 ("Compl."). The specific work at issue, a sculpture entitled Le Baiser ( The Kiss ), is one of a limited number of nearly identical bronze casts authorized and signed by the artist. Docs. 1, 3.[1] Plaintiff Karina Walton ("Plaintiff") alleges that she acquired the work upon her father's death in 2001. Compl. ¶ 33. Shortly before it was to be sold through Christie's auction house, however, Defendant George M. Hadley ("Defendant") intervened on the grounds that he believed the work to be one that he had loaned to a friend and that had subsequently been removed from the friend's home. See Compl. ¶¶ 1, 40, 45; Countercl. ¶¶ 14, 17, 19. The work was sold at auction for $800, 000, and Christie's is currently holding the proceeds in trust pursuant to an agreement between the parties and Christie's, pending a determination as to who owned the sculpture and thus is entitled to the proceeds. Countercl. ¶ 22.

Plaintiff then filed suit on November 6, 2013, alleging tortious interference with contract and seeking a declaration that she has a right to the auction proceeds. Compl. ¶¶ 48-58. Defendant answered and interposed a counterclaim on November 21, 2013. Doc. 3. The Counterclaim seeks an order quieting title, a declaratory judgment in Defendant's favor, and an injunction requiring that the sales proceeds be released to him. Countercl. ¶¶ 24-30.

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Doc. 12. Plaintiff seeks judgment in her favor on her declaratory judgment claim, as well as dismissal of Defendant's counterclaim.[2] Id.

For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Specifically, Defendant's counterclaim is dismissed for failure to state a claim, but Plaintiff is not entitled to an affirmative judgment in her favor based solely on the contents of the pleadings.

I. Background

Plaintiff, a New Jersey resident, [3] alleges that the cast of Le Baiser was in her father's possession for "all of her conscious life" and that she acquired it after his death in 2001. Compl. ¶¶ 3, 31, 33. In 2013, upon learning that it might be valuable, she contacted Christie's and ultimately entered into a contract with the auction house to sell the work at a public auction. Id. ¶¶ 37-40.

Defendant alleges that he saw the sculpture, which matches the description of the one he owns, listed in the Christie's auction catalogue. Countercl. ¶¶ 4-5. According to Defendant, his sculpture is one of two Rodins that had originally been displayed at his grandfather's Richmond Hill estate in New York, the other being a similarly sized work entitled L'Éternel Printemps ( Eternal Springtime ). Id. ¶¶ 7-8. The two sculptures remained in the family following his grandfather's death-though his mother loaned them to Vassar College for a time-and ultimately passed to Hadley on his mother's death in 1985. Id. ¶¶ 9-13. Defendant retained possession of the sculptures in Philadelphia until 1994, when he loaned both to an individual in Boston and subsequently loaned Le Baiser to Elaine Moranz in Philadelphia. Id. ¶ 14.

Defendant, who now resides in Boston, Massachusetts, attempted to contact Moranz upon seeing the Christie's catalogue but was informed that she had died two years earlier. Id. ¶¶ 1, 16. Joel Moranz, Elaine's husband, told Defendant that a woman named Jana Paley had removed the sculpture from his home and that it, along with the rest of the contents of Paley's moving van or storage facility, had been stolen. Id. ¶ 17.[4] Defendant was unable to contact Paley, [5] locate a police report, or obtain any other explanation as to the location of his cast, and Christie's was unable to provide him with any additional information regarding the provenance of the sculpture listed in the catalogue. Id. ¶¶ 18-20.[6]

Plaintiff alleges-and Defendant admits-that the sculpture she consigned to Christie's is one of at least 65[7] unnumbered casts of Le Baiser and that it does not have any known distinguishing characteristics setting it apart from the others. Compl. ¶¶ 26-27, 29; Answer ¶¶ 26-27, 29. Defendant likewise admits that his missing sculpture is unnumbered and lacks any known characteristics that would distinguish it from the other Le Baiser casts. Compl. ¶¶ 28, 30; Answer ¶¶ 28, 30.

II. Legal Standard

Rule 12(c) provides that "[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The Court applies the same standard of review to a Rule 12(c) motion as it does to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6). Cleveland v. Caplaw Enters., 448 F.3d 518, 521 (2d Cir. 2006).

When ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Koch v. Christie's Int'l PLC, 699 F.3d 141, 145 (2d Cir. 2012). However, the Court is not required to credit "mere conclusory statements" or "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)); see also id. at 681 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 551). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter... to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). More specifically, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to show "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 "marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era, but it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 678-79. If the plaintiff has not "nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

The legal standard on a Rule 12 motion is the same when evaluating whether counterclaims have been sufficiently pled: the factual allegations in the counterclaim are accepted as true, all reasonable inferences are drawn in the counterclaimant's favor, and the counterclaim must state a facially plausible claim to relief. See, e.g., Weisman Celler Spett & Modlin, P.C. v. Trans-Lux Corp., No. 12 CIV. 5141 JMF, 2014 WL 476348, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 6, 2014); Ross Stores, Inc. v. Lincks, No. 13 CIV. 1876 SAS, 2013 WL 5629646, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 4, 2013); Overseas Private Inv. Corp. v. Furman, No. 10 CIV. 7096 RJS, 2012 WL 967458, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 14, 2012) (discussing the ...

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