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Narkiewicz-Laine v. Doyle

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 19, 2019

Christian K. Narkiewicz-Laine, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Kevin C. Doyle, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued April 5, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:ll-cv-1826 - Frederick J. Kapala, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Kanne, and Scudder, Circuit Judges

          Scudder, Circuit Judge.

         This case arose from the destruction of personal property and artwork belonging to Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, an artist. Narkiewicz-Laine stored his artwork and other belongings in a space in Galena, Illinois that he rented from the defendants. Years into the lease, the defendants emptied the unit, destroying the majority of Narkiewicz-Laine's property. He responded by suing to recover for the loss of his property. After a six-day trial, the jury awarded him damages on multiple claims. Unsatisfied with his damages award, Narkiewicz-Laine now appeals, challenging a number of the district court's rulings made along the way. We affirm.

         I

         The lease between Narkiewicz-Laine and the defendants, members of the Doyle family and affiliated entities, began in 2004. About six years later, the defendants cleared the rental space and discarded the majority of his property, including the only records he had listing the property stored in the unit. Narkiewicz-Laine then brought this suit, pursuing claims under an amendment to the Copyright Act known as the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, 17 U.S.C. § 106A, to recover for the destruction of his artwork. For certain types of visual art, the Act confers upon artists rights to attribution and integrity- including, for particular qualifying works, the right to prevent the work's destruction. See Kelley v. Chicago Park Dist., 635 F.3d 290, 296 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Narkiewicz-Laine added common law claims for trespass, conversion, and negligence under Illinois law. He based these latter claims on a broader theory of recovery that would allow him to obtain damages for all of his lost property-the entirety of his destroyed artwork and other items of personal property.

         The case proceeded to trial. Narkiewicz-Laine testified on the central issue of what property and art had been stored in the rental unit. He did so by introducing a list of all the artwork and personal property, explaining that he prepared the inventory after learning of the destruction by checking his personal records, contacting institutions where his work had been exhibited, and attempting to obtain photographs of his work from friends. The inventory listed 1, 457 pieces of Narkiewicz-Laine's own artwork, items of personal property, and artwork created by others that he had stored in the rental unit. He asked the jury to award him $11 million for his losses.

         For their part, the defendants presented evidence that Narkiewicz-Laine had missed multiple rent payments and long since stopped paying for the utilities for the property. The defendants also underscored that, prior to emptying the space, they saw nothing resembling art or valuable personal property in the rental unit. The defendants took the position that they disposed of junk, not art.

         In the course of the trial, the defendants impeached Narkiewicz-Laine with a prior conviction for lying to an FBI agent. Prior to trial, the district court had denied Narkiewicz-Laine's motion to exclude evidence of the conviction, which was over ten years old.

         The jury returned a verdict in Narkiewicz-Laine's favor. It found that the defendants had destroyed four pieces of artwork protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act and awarded $120, 000 in damages. But the jury did not award him damages on the remainder of the works for which he had claimed damages under the Act-some 1, 453 other pieces of artwork. As for the common law claims, the jury decided in Narkiewicz-Laine's favor and awarded $300, 000, reflecting the loss of all the artwork and other belongings stored at the unit.

         Following the trial, the district court reduced Narkiewicz-Laine's total damages award from $420, 000 to $300, 000 to avoid what it saw as an improper double recovery. It determined that the jury's award on the common law claims needed to be reduced by the amount he recovered for the destruction of his works protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act, as some of the damages were duplicative. Even more specifically, the court reasoned that the award for Narkiewicz-Laine's common law claims-which compensated him for the loss of all property and artwork that had been destroyed-necessarily included the loss caused by the destruction of the subset of his artwork protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act.

         Next, the district court concluded that Narkiewicz-Laine was not entitled to attorneys' fees under the Copyright Act. The court reasoned that, while he had won a damages award covering some of the works, he also lost the majority of the claims he brought under the Visual Artists Rights Act-his claims covered 1, 457 protected works, but he prevailed only as to four of those works. In the court's ...


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