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Lawsuit over artwork reinstated

Second Circuit reverses decision

By: Bennett Loudon//August 3, 2022

Lawsuit over artwork reinstated

Second Circuit reverses decision

By: Bennett Loudon//August 3, 2022

A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court and reinstated a lawsuit over the ownership of a valuable artwork.

Plaintiff Matthew Mochary, who lives in California, sued Seth Bergstein in U.S. District Court in Connecticut to force the return of a Jackson Pollack collage worth $175,000.

Judge Victor A. Bolden dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Bergstein’s divorce was pending and the collage was among marital property that needed to be allocated between Bergstein and his wife, Mochary’s sister.

Mochary’s appellate attorney argued that should not have dismissed the complaint because the state and federal actions “involve different parties, different issues, and different remedies,” according to court papers.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed and sent the case back to District Court.

Mochary claims he loaned the collage to Bergstein and his wife (Mochary’s sister.) When Mochary discovered Bergstein was not properly caring for the collage, he asked to have it returned, but Bergstein refused.

Mochary filed a federal lawsuit and Bergstein’s attorney moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that it was part of the divorce case and, under federal court rules, the district court should abstain from hearing the matter.

Bolden dismissed Mochary’s complaint, holding that, because of the pending divorce proceedings, the state court in Connecticut had jurisdiction over the marital estate and adjudicating Mochary’s claims would interfere with the state proceedings.

Mochary appealed and the Second Circuit reversed Bolden.

The Collage, which was created by Pollock in 1943, has been in Mochary’s family for decades.

In 2016, the Collage was loaned to Alexandra Kasser (Bergstein’s wife and Mochary’s sister). The collage was displayed at Bergstein and Kasser’s home in Connecticut from 2016 through 2020, when it was removed under a stipulation between the parties and ordered by the district court.

In late 2018, Kasser filed for divorce against Bergstein in Connecticut state court. After filing for divorce, Kasser moved out of the home, leaving the collage behind with Bergstein.

In May 2020, Mochary notified Bergstein that he owned the collage and demanded it be returned in 30 days. Bergstein did not respond.

Bolden approved the stipulation governing removal of the collage and its care while the case was pending.

“The federal and state proceedings at issue here are not parallel; the parties and relief sought are not the same. Mochary is not a party to the state divorce action, and his sister is not a party to the federal court action,” the Second Circuit wrote.

“The issues and relief sought are distinct: the state action involves domestic relations concerns as well as identification and distribution of marital property while Mochary raises claims related to ownership and care of the collage — tort claims against only Bergstein,” the Second Circuit wrote.

Bolden concluded that Mochary’s claims “would become moot” if the state court finds the collage is part of Bergstein’s marital estate.

“This was error. Nothing suggests the state court overseeing the divorce proceeding would or could adjudicate Mochary’s tort claims,” the Second Circuit wrote.

“A divorce decree awarding the collage to Bergstein as marital property will not extinguish Mochary’s claims,” the Second Circuit wrote.

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