Clergy-abuse precedent invoked in Nazi art case

Retired Vanderbilt professor suing German state. Also: Recording artist and his wife sue former manager and manufacturer wants Ashland City to finish its paperwork [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]

A recent ruling that allowed alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests to sue the Vatican itself may have an impact on a local case involving artworks looted by Nazi forces.

If a brief filed last month in Nashville's federal court is successful, the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a Kentucky lawsuit against the Holy See could enable Fred Westfield of Nashville to move forward with his lawsuit against the Federal Republic of Germany.

Westfield wants the German government held responsible for the seizure and sale of a vast collection of paintings from his uncle, German art dealer Walter Westfeld, a Jew who perished at Auschwitz. Containing works by Pissarro, El Greco, several of the 17th-century Dutch masters and other renowned artists, the collection would be worth many millions of dollars today.

Together with several other heirs of the collector, retired Vanderbilt University economics professor Westfield filed suit against Germany in Davidson County Chancery Court last year. Lawyers for the German state got the case moved to federal court, where they have sought to have it dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations for any legal action has long since run out and that the government cannot be sued because it is protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law.

Each side has filed briefs with extensive arguments about the statute of limitations issue and the immunity issue. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act gives foreign governments absolute immunity from lawsuits unless their acts are covered by certain exceptions. O’Bryan v. Holy See, the Kentucky case in which the Sixth Circuit issued a ruling early this year, addressed how courts are to judge who bears the burden of proving that an exception applies.

"Once the plaintiff offers evidence that an exception to immunity applies," that decision stated, "the party claiming immunity bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the exception does not apply." The O'Bryan ruling is binding upon courts in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Middle Tennessee.

In their brief on Westfield's behalf, Overton Thompson III of Bass, Berry & Sims PLC and Jeffrey Schoenblum of Vanderbilt University Law School claim that his case meets the exemption test and therefore should not be thrown out.

"We believe our position is sound and supported by the law," William S. Walton of Miller & Martin PLLC, one of the authors of Germany's motion to dismiss the case, told last week. He said he and colleagues will file a response in due course, but declined to comment further at present.

Davidson County Chancery Court

C. Russell Bridges a/k/a Leon Russell and Janet C. Bridges v. Roy C. Wunsch. Filed May 20. Recording artist Russell and his wife accuse a former employee of numerous fraudulent financial transactions that allegedly cost them more than $225,000. The lawsuit claims Wunsch forged checks to obtain money from the couple's accounts, billed personal expenses to their credit cards, opened and incurred charges on new accounts without their knowledge, created a fraudulent power of attorney in connection with a real estate deal, took money out of their retirement accounts to cover some of the shortfalls he had created, and caused them to incur fees and penalties from a bank and the Internal Revenue Service.

United States District Court

Trinity Industries Inc. v. Town of Ashland City. Filed May 26. Bargemaker Trinity, one of Cheatham County's major employers, is in a dispute with Ashland City over whether a paint shop it built on its riverfront property in 2006 is or is not in compliance with local laws regarding construction in floodplains.

The city told Trinity to submit a report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency about the impact its building has had on the riverbank. Trinity submitted the report, but it claims the city has kept the matter in limbo since 2007 through its refusal to send a properly authenticated copy of it to Washington.