United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
OPINION & ORDER (1) GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S
MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 26) AND (2) DENYING
DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT.
A. GOLDSMITH, United States District Judge
matter is before the Court on the parties' competing
motions for summary judgment. The issues were fully briefed,
and a hearing was held on November 8, 2017. For the reasons
stated below, the Court grants the Government's motion
for summary judgment (Dkt. 26) and denies Defendants Maritime
Exchange Museum and Steven Gronow's motion for summary
judgment (Dkt. 25).
Steven Gronow runs the Maritime Exchange Museum out of his
home. Pl. Mot. for Sum. Judg. ¶ 4. The museum displays a
collection of lighthouse lenses. Id. Two particular
lenses previously used by the United States are at issue: one
Fresnel lens marked H.L. 331, which was formerly used at the
light house at Spring Point Ledge, Maine (the “Spring
Point Ledge lens”) and another Fresnel lens marked B.F.
53, which was formerly used in the Belle Isle Light Station
in Detroit, Michigan (the “Belle Isle lens”).
Id. ¶¶ 1-2. Both lenses had fallen out of
the possession of the United States and were purchased by
Gronow. Id. ¶¶ 14-15, 21. The Government
brought this suit seeking a declaratory judgment that the
United States is the owner of both lenses, and also seeking a
judgment for possession for the lenses. See Compl.
¶¶ 1-2 (Dkt. 1).
material facts of the case are, for the most part,
undisputed. Around 1960, the Spring Point Ledge Light Station
transitioned to an automatic and unattended operation,
necessitating the replacement of the Spring Point Ledge lens.
Spring Point Ledge Light Station Change A, Ex. F to Pl. Mot.
for Sum. Judg., at 266-267 (Dkt. 26-7). According to a
government work order, the lens was to be returned to a Coast
Guard base in Portland, Maine; if it was deemed beyond
repair, that work order mandated that the lens be discarded
overboard in deep waters. Id. at 267. There is no
written record of the location of the Spring Point Ledge lens
after 1960, Def. Mot. for Sum. Judg. ¶ 5, until, in
1998, the United States deeded the Spring Point Ledge Light
Station to the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust, while
maintaining all right, title, and interest in the lenses
associated with the property. Quit Claim Deed, Ex. E to Pl.
Mot. for Sum. Judg., at 153 (Dkt. 26-6). In 2003, the Spring
Point Ledge lens was put up for auction on eBay by a person
named Pat Jones. eBay Listing, Ex. G to Pl. Mot. for Sum.
Judg. (Dkt. 26-8). In lieu of bidding on the auction, Gronow
contacted the seller and made an offer for the lens,
ultimately buying the lens for around $46, 000. Gronow Dep.,
Ex. C to Pl. Mot. for Sum. Judg., at 41 (Dkt. 26-4).
other lens at issue was formerly used in the Belle Isle Light
Station. In or around 1930, the Coast Guard decommissioned
the lighthouse, and the lens was removed and decommissioned
later that decade. Def. Mot. for Sum. Judg. ¶ 8. The
Government's last known custody and control of the lens
was in 1937. Id. ¶ 9. In January 1946, the
Coast Guard announced that it would make antiquated
navigational aids available to museums, schools, and maritime
societies “in a loan status.” USCG memo, Ex. L to
Pl. Mot. for Sum. Judg. (Dkt 26-13). The memo made clear that
the aids could be loaned indefinitely, but that the Coast
Guard, due to legal restrictions, could not dispose of them
as gifts. Id. In October 1946, the Henry County
Historical Society Museum in Henry County, Indiana announced
that it was “obtaining the loan of a light house lens,
the loan probably culminating into permanent ownership by the
museum.” Henry County Historical Society Meeting Notes,
Ex. K to Pl. Mot. for Sum. Judg. (Dkt. 26-12). Decades later, in
2005, Gronow learned that the lens was located in the
basement of the Henry County Historical Society in Henry
County, Indiana. Gronow Dep. at 53. Gronow purchased the lens
from the Historical Society for $25, 000 in February 2006.
Wire Transfer, Ex. J to Pl. Mot. for Sum. Judg. (Dkt. 26-11).
Government brought this suit seeking a declaratory judgment
that the United States is the owner of the two lenses, and
seeking an order directing the return of the two lenses to
the Coast Guard's possession and control. The parties do
not dispute that the United States once owned both lenses and
that it is no longer in possession of them. The disagreement
between the parties at this juncture centers on how current
ownership is proven and who must prove it. Both parties bring
summary judgment motions arguing accordingly.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 56 shall 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). A genuine dispute of material fact exists
when there are “disputes over facts that might affect
the outcome of the suit under the governing law.”
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
(1986). “[F]acts must be viewed in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a
‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.”
Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).
“Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a
rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there
is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587
the movant satisfies its initial burden of demonstrating the
absence of any genuine issue of material fact, the burden
shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth specific facts
showing a triable issue of material fact. Scott, 550
U.S. at 380; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317,
323 (1986). The nonmoving party “must do more than
simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the
material facts, ” Scott, 550 U.S. at 380
(quoting Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586), as the
“mere existence of some alleged factual
dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise
properly supported motion for summary judgment, ”
id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-248)
(emphasis in original); see also Babcock & Wilcox Co.
v. Cormetech, Inc., 848 F.3d 754, 758 (6th Cir. 2017)
(“A mere scintilla of evidence or some metaphysical
doubt as to a material fact is insufficient to forestall
sides agree that the lenses were originally property of the
United States. Where they disagree is whether the record of
subsequent events, presented at this summary judgment stage,
establishes that the United States has lost its ownership
interest. The Government contends that only properly
authorized acts by Government employees are sufficient to
terminate its ownership, and that the record shows no such
events. Gronow's response is two-fold: (i) because the
Government no longer possesses the property, it bears the
burden of establishing that no acts extinguishing its
interest took place, and it has not met this burden; and (ii)
as a good faith purchaser, Gronow has rights superior to the
Government, regardless of whether such acts took place. The
Government replies that (i) it has no burden to establish
that there were no ownership extinguishing acts, but if so,
it has met that burden; and (ii) the good faith purchaser
doctrine has no application here. The Court agrees with the
Government's property rights are grounded in the
Constitution itself, which assigns to Congress the power to
establish rules governing the property of the United States.
See U.S. Const. Art. IV, § 3, Cl. 2 (“The
Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful
rules and regulations respecting the territory or other
property belonging to the United States . . . .”). From
this bedrock grant of authority, the Supreme Court has
concluded that individual Government officials have no power
to dispose of property, except as Congress has authorized. As
explained in Royal Indemnity Co. v. United States,
313 U.S. 289 (1941), where the Court invalidated a purported
abatement of tax by a collector who lacked the statutorily
required approval of the IRS Commissioner or Treasury
Power to release or otherwise dispose of the rights and
property of the United States is lodged in the Congress by
the Constitution. Art. IV, s 3, Cl. 2. Subordinate officers
of the United States are without that power, save only as it
has been conferred upon them by ...