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Westfield, et al. v. Federal Republic of Germany — FSIA schields Germany from defending the case on the merits

The heirs of Walter Westfield, a prominent German art dealer in the 1930s, sought to recover the value of Westfeld’s art collection from the Federal Republic of Germany.  On Feb. 2, 2011, 6th Cir. Court of Appeals dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. Westfield v. Fed. Republic of Germany, 2011 FED App. 0026P (6th Cir.)

The heirs alleged that Westfield attempted to flee Germany with his art collection but his passport had expired and he was unable to get a visa from the United States. He was arrested in 1938 and sentenced to prison for three and a half years and fined Reichmarks 300,000 for some alleged currency violations. Around the same time, the District Attorney’s Office in Dusseldorf ordered that Westfield’s art and tapestry collection be sold to satisfy the fine.  The collection was sold by Lempertz, the German auction house on December 12 and 13, 1939. Westfield was killed in 1943. His heir discovered that  the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was seeking information about Walter Westfield, in relation to a painting in its collection of Dutch Masters in 2004. Through the Museum, the heir learned how his uncle’s art collection was confiscated and sold at auction.

After the heirs filed a lawsuit in Tennessee state court against the German government, Germany removed it to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. 1602 et seq. (2006).  2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65133 (M.D. Tenn., July 28, 2009).

The district court granted Germany’s motion to dismiss, holding that the heirs’ claims were barred by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act [FSIA], and do not fall within the exception for acts in connection with commercial activity.  On appeal, the court found that the heirs’ argument denying a sovereign act was not persuasive finding that “sovereigns were historically entitled to absolute immunity and the [FSIA] was intended to codify the “restrictive theory” of sovereign immunity, waiving immunity only in certain limited situations.”

The Court of Appeals agreed that Westfield’s treatment and demise “constituted an abuse of police and prosecutor powers by the German government at the time, were nonetheless the acts of a sovereign…” Even though the court agreed that it “should not recognize Westfield’s fine and imprisonment,” it felt compelled to respect acts of a sovereign.  The court based its regrettably decision on its jurisdictional limitations imposed by “Article III of the Constitution and the statutes Congress enacts.”

The full opinion is available here.