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Greenhill v. Vartanian

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 8, 2019

Charles Greenhill and Amphib, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellees,
Richard M. Vartanian and Platinum Fighter Sales, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued February 4, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15-cv-09585 - John Robert Blakey, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

          EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge.

         Hermann 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.

         (Image Omitted)

         In 1965 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.

         Martin 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.

         In 1998 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.

         In 2009 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).

         Although 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 [1], and on Defendants' counterclaims for conversion and declaratory relief [14].

         A 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.

         The 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 ...

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