Second Circuit Dismisses Comic Book Lawsuit After Successful Argument by Cynthia Arato

On September 27, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against the ex-wife of comic book artist Wallace Wood, which claimed that valuable comic book artwork in her possession should be turned over to Wallace Wood’s biographer. Shapiro Arato partner Cynthia Arato argued in the Second Circuit on behalf of the ex-wife, Tatjana Wood.

The lawsuit alleged that Wallace Wood created the artwork decades ago and sent it to a comic book publisher for use in comic books. In 2005, long after Wallace’s death, the publisher returned the artwork to his ex-wife Tatjana. In 2006, Wallace’s biographer learned that Tatjana had the artwork in her home, and he bought two pieces from her in 2010. Because Wallace’s will bequeathed any remaining artwork in Wallace’s estate to a friend of Wallace, the biographer decided to buy the friend’s interest in the will. In 2014, he filed suit against Tatjana, claiming the artwork was rightfully his, and that Tatjana had obtained the artwork knowing it did not belong to her.

The Second Circuit held that the lawsuit was untimely. The statute of limitations for conversion and replevin (return of property) claims in New York is three years. Ordinarily, it begins to run when the plaintiff demands the return of the property and the defendant refuses. But the clock may start running earlier if the defendant (1) obtains the property in bad faith or (2) openly deals with the property as her own. The Court found that the statute of limitations began to run in 2005, since the biographer alleged that Tatjana had obtained the artwork in bad faith. At latest, it began in 2010, when Tatjana sold artwork to the biographer and therefore dealt with it as her own. By the time the biographer brought suit in 2014, the limitations period had expired.

The Second Circuit’s summary order can be read here.