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Pierre Vasarhelyi v. Michele Taburno Vasarhelyi

August 13, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang


Plaintiff Pierre Vasarhelyi brings this lawsuit against his step-mother, Defendant Michele Taburno Vasarhelyi, alleging claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq., as well as various state law claims.*fn1 All of the claims arise from a dispute over some of the artwork created by the late Victor Vasarhelyi. Michele moves for summary judgment on all counts. R. 124. For reasons explained more fully below, Michele's motion is granted.


In deciding this summary judgment motion, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, Pierre.*fn2 Pierre is the grandson of Victor Vasarhelyi, who was an internationally recognized artist. R. 126, Def.'s Stmt. of Material Facts (DSOF) ¶ 3. According to some, Victor was the inventor of the "optical art" style.*fn3 Here is an image of one of Victor's works, which sold at auction in November 2011 for $242,500:*fn4

Victor had two sons-Andre and Jean-Pierre ("Yvaral") Vasarhelyi. Id. Yvaral, who is Pierre's father, was also a famous artist. Id. ¶ 1. In 1969, Yvaral married Michele, and Michele became Pierre's step-mother. Id. ¶¶ 1-3. After the marriage, Michele began working as an assistant for Victor and Yvaral. Id. ¶ 8. Michele acted as an agent for Victor and Yvaral's business activities as artists. Id. ¶ 13.

Victor and Yvaral passed away in 1997 and 2002, respectively. Id. ¶¶ 1, 3. Since then, there have been numerous disputes over who has rightful ownership of artwork created by Victor and Yvaral.*fn5 In 2004, Michele moved to the United States, and brought a large collection of art that she claims to have received from Victor and Yvaral during the many years she was married to Yvaral and worked as Yvaral and Victor's assistant. Id. ¶ 19. Michele stores other pieces of art that were part of Yvaral's estate in an undisclosed location in France. R. 142, Pl.'s Stmt. of Facts (PSOF) ¶ 3.

As an heir to Victor and Yvaral's estates, Pierre claims that he has a beneficial interest in the artwork that Michele brought to the United States, as well as the artwork hidden in France. Pierre seeks to recover for injuries he suffered due to Michele's alleged unlawful possession and transport of the artwork.


Summary judgment must be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Rule 56 "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). All facts, and any inferences to be drawn from them, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Wis. Cent., Ltd. v. Shannon, 539 F.3d 751, 756 (7th Cir. 2008).


Michele raises the threshold question of whether this Court's consideration of Pierre's claims is prohibited by the doctrines of claim preclusion or issue preclusion.

Michele contends that a judgment entered in an Illinois state-court proceeding bars Pierre from litigating the claims brought in this case.

In 2008, Michele sued Thomas Monahan, an art dealer, and TKG StorageMart*fn6 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.*fn7 DSOF ¶ 20. Michele alleged that Monahan unlawfully prevented her from accessing her art collection, which was being stored in lockers at StorageMart under Monahan's name. Id.; R. 132-1, Def.'s Exh. M-1. In January 2012, the Circuit Court granted Michele's partial motion for summary judgment on the claim of replevin as to all of Michele's personal property stored in the StorageMart lockers, which included a large collection of art created by Victor and Yvaral. R. 165, Def.'s Stmt. of Additional Facts (DSOAF) ¶ 5. The Circuit Court held that Michele had established her right to "possess as owner" the art contained in the StorageMart lockers, and ordered the artwork to be returned to Michele. Id. ¶¶ 5-6.

The preclusive effect of a state court's judgment on a subsequent suit in federal court is determined by state law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1738; Burke v. Johnston, 452 F.3d 665, 669 (7th Cir. 2006). The parties agree that Illinois law applies. Under Illinois law, three requirements must be satisfied for claim preclusion to apply: "(1) a final judgment on the merits has been rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of cause of action exists; and (3) the parties or their privies are identical in both actions." Hudson v. City of Chicago, 889 N.E.2d 210, 213 (Ill. 2008).

Pierre argues that claim preclusion does not apply because the state-court proceeding did not involve the same parties (or their privies) as this case. R. 168 (Pl.'s Sur-reply) at 2. Pierre was not a party in the state-court case, though not for lack of trying. Pierre moved to intervene as an interested party in Vasarhelyi v. Monahan, but his motion was denied. DSOF ¶ 37. Michele argues, however, that Pierre was in privity with Monahan and is thus bound by the state-court judgment against Monahan. R. 164 (Def.'s Am. Reply) at 8-9. Michele points to an agreement that Pierre and Monahan entered into in September 2008-a few months after Michele filed the state-court action against Monahan. DSOAF ¶ 1. Pierre and Monahan's "common[-]interest agreement" states that "the parties share a mutuality of interest in connection with rejecting [Michele's] wrongful claim to ownership of the [art] in the [state-court case] 08-CH-23672, and in prosecuting Pierre and Andre Vasarhelyi's claims to ownership of the [art] belonging to them." R. 167, Def.'s Exh. BB. Monahan agreed to comply with all orders entered in the state-court case, share information with Pierre about the status of ...

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