February 4, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15-cv-09585 -
John Robert Blakey, Judge.
Wood, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and St. Eve, Circuit
EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge.
Goring, head of the Luftwaffe in World War II, remarked:
"When I saw those Mustangs over Berlin, I knew that the
war was lost." The P-51 Mustang fighter entered service
in January 1942, and long-range variants introduced late in
1943 could escort Allied bombers to Germany and back. (With
external fuel tanks, they had a range exceeding 1, 600
miles.) More than 15, 500 Mustangs were built; the plane
served as this nation's main fighter until jets succeeded
it during the Korean War. Some Mustangs remained in military
use in other nations until 1984. The picture below shows one
of the long-range versions. Surviving aircraft are
collector's items, "warbirds" lovingly rebuilt
and maintained by private aficionados, displayed in museums,
and occasionally flown at air shows. One is in the collection
of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The
Federal Aviation Administration has more than 100 airworthy
Mustangs on its register today. This suit is about one of
them-or perhaps two of them.
Richard Vartanian bought a Mustang that had flown in the
Royal Canadian Air Force but had been in private hands since
1960. Its serial number was 44-74543. He stored it at a car
dealership until 1973 or 1974, when he moved it to a hangar
at Fulton County Airport in New York. In 1985 Vartanian
decided to move the plane to California, but his
representative could not find it. Vartanian suspected Wilbur
Martin, who had promised to restore the plane on
Vartanian's behalf. In April 1985 Vartanian's lawyer
demanded that Martin return the plane and, when that did not
occur, Vartanian personally complained to the FAA, the FBI,
and law-enforcement agencies in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New
York that the plane may have been stolen.
denied taking Vartanian's plane but conceded buying some
Mustang parts from Waterman Brown, one of Vartanian's
associates. Martin later registered with the FAA (which
administers the federal system of aircraft ownership) a
Mustang having serial number 44-63655. Martin asserts that it
had been cobbled together using parts from a plane of his
that had crashed in Nicaragua plus components that he had
acquired from several sources, including Brown.
Martin sold the plane bearing SN 44-63655 to Amphib, Inc., a
corporation controlled by Charles Greenhill. Vartanian
learned about this transaction in 2002 or 2003 by reading an
article in Air Classics magazine that incorrectly
identified the serial number of Greenhill's plane as
44-74543 (which, recall, had been attached to Vartanian's
plane) and specified its provenance as one that the Royal
Canadian Air Force had sold as military surplus. In 2004
Vartanian hired another lawyer to investigate. He obtained
the FAA's file on the plane, which showed the sale to
Greenhill in 1998, and prepared the complaint for a tort
action against Martin and Greenhill. But this lawyer died
before filing the suit, and Vartanian did not follow up.
Vartanian wrote a letter to the United States Attorney for
the Northern District of Illinois contending that his Mustang
had been stolen by Martin in 1984 and that Martin used the
serial number of the plane destroyed in Nicaragua to conceal
his crime. The United States Attorney declined to prosecute
but urged Vartanian to retain counsel to pursue civil relief.
Vartanian did nothing further until after learning from a
historian in 2013 that there were irregularities in the
serial numbers of several of Martin's planes. In February
2014 Vartanian sent Greenhill a letter demanding that he turn
over the plane purchased from Martin. Greenhill responded in
2015 with this suit under the diversity jurisdiction, seeking
a declaratory judgment that he owns the plane. Vartanian and
his corporation Platinum Fighter Sales filed counterclaims
seeking that relief for themselves, because a thief cannot
convey good title, plus an order that Greenhill or Amphib
hand the plane over to them. But the district judge concluded
that the time to accuse Martin of theft had expired long ago.
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 186706 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 13, 2017).
the judge's opinion states that plaintiffs are entitled
to a declaratory judgment, the court did not enter one.
Instead it entered this decision on the form used for
judgments under Fed.R.Civ.P. 58:
Judgment is entered in favor of Plaintiff and against
Defendant on Plaintiffs' complaint for declaratory relief
, and on Defendants' counterclaims for conversion and
declaratory relief .
document providing that "[j]udgment is entered"
does not satisfy Rule 58. A judgment must provide the relief
to which the prevailing party is entitled. See, e.g.,
Hyland v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 885
F.3d 482 (7th Cir. 2018); Cooke v. Jackson National Life
Insurance Co., 882 F.3d 630 (7th Cir. 2018);
Reytblatt v. Denton, 812 F.2d 1042 (7th Cir. 1987);
Azeez v. Fairman, 795 F.2d 1296 (7th Cir. 1986).
This document does not do that. It shows that the district
court is done with the case, which permits an appeal, but it
does not resolve the parties' dispute. The judgment also
does not show that it was reviewed and approved by the judge,
although Rule 58(b)(2) provides that the judge, not a clerk,
must approve decisions of this kind.
district judge failed to resolve two subjects on which the
parties' appellate briefs disagree. First, who receives
the relief? The judgment refers to "Plaintiff", but
there are two plaintiffs. The corporate plaintiff (Amphib) is
the registered owner of the airplane, but some of the
district court's opinion suggests that relief is being
awarded to Greenhill. Second, although plaintiffs'
initial complaint sought a declaratory judgment that they own
the airplane against the world (a standard outcome of a
quiet-title action), at oral argument on appeal they
recognized that this suit concerns personal property rather
than real estate and disclaimed entitlement to ...