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The Armenian Assembly of America, Inc., et al v. Gerard L. Cafesjian

May 9, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

08-1254 (CKK)


The above-captioned consolidated actions involve a series of claims and counterclaims relating to the parties' attempts to create a museum and memorial in Washington, D.C. devoted to the Armenian Genocide. Following a twelve-day bench trial in November 2010, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion setting forth its findings of fact and conclusions of law on January 26, 2011. See [193]*fn1 Mem. Op. (Jan. 26, 2011). The Court found that none of the parties' substantive claims were meritorious and dismissed all of the claims save one, holding that Defendants Gerard L. Cafesjian and John J. Waters were entitled to indemnification from the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, Inc. ("AGM&M") for legal expenses incurred in defending claims asserted against them in their capacities as former officers of AGM&M. The Court also affirmed the validity of a Grant Agreement that provides Cafesjian and the Cafesjian Family Foundation, Inc. ("CFF") with a reversionary interest (now vested) in certain properties owned by AGM&M. Since the Court's ruling, the parties have filed a variety of motions with the Court relating to unresolved remedial issues and enforcement of the Court's judgment. This Memorandum Opinion addresses only one of those motions, the [208] Motion for New Trial filed by The Armenian Assembly of America, Inc. (the "Assembly") and subsequently joined by AGM&M (collectively, "Plaintiffs"). Defendants Cafesjian Family Foundation, Inc. ("CFF"), John J. Waters Jr. ("Waters"), and Gerard L. Cafesjian ("Cafesjian") (collectively, "Defendants") have filed an opposition to Plaintiffs' motion, and Plaintiffs have filed a reply. Accordingly, the motion is ripe for adjudication.

The primary basis for Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial is an alleged "mutual interest and beneficial relationship" between the Court and Defendant Gerard L. Cafesjian based on an allegedly shared cultural and financial interest in modern glass art, which Plaintiffs believe may have biased the outcome of the bench trial. Plaintiffs also suggest that there is a political connection between the Court and Cafesjian based on allegedly mutual connections to former President William J. Clinton. Although Plaintiffs have not filed a formal motion for disqualification pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 144, they argue that the Court should disqualify itself pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455 and reassign this matter to a new judge for retrial.

The Court finds that there is no substantive basis for a new trial because no reasonable observer would question the Court's impartiality based on the evidence produced by Plaintiffs: a shared interest in glass art alone does not suggest partiality, and the alleged political connection is far too attenuated to be suggestive of bias. In addition to lacking merit on substantive grounds, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' attempt to disqualify the Court is procedurally untimely because it was not raised until long after Plaintiffs should have learned the facts that form the basis for their motion. Accordingly, the Court shall DENY Plaintiffs' Motion for New Trial.


A. Factual and Procedural Background

The Court set out its factual findings thoroughly in its Memorandum Opinion issued on January 26, 2011, and the Court assumes familiarity with that opinion here. See Armenian Assembly of Am., Inc. v. Cafesjian, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2011 WL 229354 (D.D.C. Jan. 26, 2011). Relatively few facts from that opinion are relevant to Plaintiffs' Motion for New Trial, and they are summarized below.

In the late 1990s, Cafesjian and several individuals involved with the Assembly joined forces in an effort to create a museum devoted to memorializing the Armenian Genocide. In 2000, the Assembly purchased a prominent building in downtown Washington, D.C. (the "Bank Building") for the purpose of housing the genocide museum. This Bank Building was purchased using money donated by Cafesjian (through CFF and another organization affiliated with Cafesjian) and another philanthropist, Anoush Mathevosian. One of the conditions for Cafesjian's donation was the creation of a memorial as part of the genocide museum project. On March 30, 2000, the Assembly sent Cafesjian a letter confirming his donations and its obligation to build a memorial. This letter noted that Cafesjian's proposed design for the memorial had not been finalized but that his concept consisted of a "walk-in, contemplative, chapel-like space, with interior walls of native Armenian stone and a glass sculpture by Stanislav Libensky as the focal point." The memorial was expected to take up approximately 1200 square feet of floor space and 40,000 cubic feet of overall volume. The Assembly agreed to cooperate with the design firm or artist chosen by CFF to complete the memorial, and CFF agreed to make contributions to the Assembly to finance the memorial. Cafesjian had to abandon his plan for the glass sculpture when Libensky died a few years later, long before this litigation began.

Once the Bank Building was acquired by the Assembly, Cafesjian began to acquire properties adjacent to the Bank Building. Cafesjian initially planned to use the adjacent properties to build a contemporary art museum that would also draw more visitors to the genocide museum. Ultimately, Cafesjian abandoned that plan and instead decided to build a contemporary art museum in Yerevan, Armenia. At that point, in late 2001, he decided to donate the adjacent properties to the Assembly for purposes of expanding the footprint of the genocide museum project, and his donation was secured through a Grant Agreement which obligated the Assembly to make a space available within the museum for a memorial to be constructed with input from CFF. In late 2003, AGM&M was formed as a new organization to manage the properties and create the genocide museum.

The genocide museum project stalled after years of disagreement over its size and scope, ultimately resulting in a series of lawsuits, the first of which was filed in April 2007. One of the claims raised by Defendants in the lawsuits before the Court was that the group controlling AGM&M had not let Cafesjian participate in the design for the memorial as required by the Grant Agreement. The record at trial indicated that the group controlling AGM&M had considered building the memorial as a garden on the site. However, the Court found that the plans for the memorial were never finalized, and the Court ruled against Defendants on this claim. The parties did not present any evidence at trial regarding Cafesjian's plans for the memorial after 2000, and there was no indication in the record that Cafesjian still intended to use glass sculpture in the design after Libensky died.

B. Allegations Relating to the Motion for New Trial

Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial is premised upon evidence of an alleged "shared interest" between Cafesjian and the Court relating to glass art, as well as an alleged political connection between the Court and Cafesjian through former President William J. Clinton. That evidence, which is attached in the form of exhibits to Plaintiffs' motion and reply brief, consists of the following.

In 1999, the undersigned and her husband, identified as "Mr. and Mrs. John T. Kotelly," contributed to the purchase of a glass sculpture called Vestment II by Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova for the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. See Pl.'s Ex. F (Metropolitan Museum of Art web page for Vestment II). The other donors who are listed as contributing to the acquisition, which was a gift from the Heller Gallery in New York, are Drs. Myra and J. and Harold Weiss, George F. Russell Jr., Geoffrey J. Isles, and Gerard L. Cafesjian. Id. This piece is also described in an exhibition catalogue published in 2002 by the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington called The Inner Light: Sculpture by Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova; the undersigned and her husband are listed among the "Catalogue Sponsors," while Gerard L. Cafesjian is listed among the "Lenders" to the exhibition, which featured both Vestment II and several works from Cafesjian's own collection. See Pl.'s Reply Ex. A.

According to an article published on a website affiliated with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the undersigned and her husband began collecting art in 1978, and their love of glass was sparked in 1984 at an exhibition of studio glass art at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. See Pl.'s Ex. D ("Collectors' Roundtable: Glass Acts").

John T. Kotelly is quoted in that article as saying, "People who are collectors have a special gene, and we can't help ourselves." Id. John Kotelly is a past president of the James Renwick Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to American craft art. See id. He is presently among 44 individuals who serve on the Advisory Board of the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to further the development and appreciation of art made from glass. See Pl.'s Ex. E (Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass List of Officers, Board of Directors, Advisory Board). According to an oral history by two collectors, the undersigned and her husband were described as part of a long-range planning committee for the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass in 2001. See Pl.'s Ex. K (Oral History Interview with Dale and Doug Anderson). In 2004, they offered a tour of their home collection as part of an auction sponsored by the James Renwick Alliance. They are also listed in the acknowledgments section of the book Fire and Form: The Art of Contemporary Glass, published in 2003, where they are described by the author as "friends and fellow collectors." See Pl.'s Reply Ex. B. One of the sources listed in the bibliography for that book is a catalogue from an exhibition of glass works from Cafesjian's collection. See id. John Kotelly is also mentioned in an April 2004 bulletin as being part of the creation of the Founders' Circle for the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has a permanent collection that includes works by Libensky and Brychtova and Chihuly. See Pl.'s Ex. H (Founders' Circle Bulletin).*fn2

Cafesjian testified at trial that he was an avid art collector and collector of glass art in particular. See Pl.'s Ex. B (Cafesjian Trial Tr.) at 137-38. Cafesjian also testified that he initially planned for Stanislav Libensky to design something for the chapel-like memorial space in the genocide museum but that Libensky died before that could come to fruition. Id. at 138. Cafesjian testified that his art museum in Armenia contains several pieces by Libensky, Dale Chihuly, and Arshile Gorky. See Pl.'s Ex. A (Cafesjian Trial Tr.) at 60. According to the website for his museum in Armenia, Cafesjian has over one hundred pieces by Libensky and Brychtova in his collection, and there have been several exhibitions featuring their work at the museum in Armenia. See Pl.'s Ex. G. Another artist whose works have been exhibited at Cafesjian's museum in Armenia is Sidney Hutter. See Pl.'s Ex. I (List of Hutter Exhibitions). Hutter's works have also been exhibited at the Renwick Gallery. Id. Plaintiffs have also produced evidence suggesting that another artist, Ginny Ruffner, has had works exhibited at the Renwick Gallery as well as at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art as part of Cafesjian's collection. See Pl.'s Ex. J (List of Ruffner Exhibitions).

Plaintiffs also contend that there is a political connection between Cafesjian and the Court. Plaintiffs have produced a published interview with Dwight Opperman, one of Cafesjian's former colleagues,*fn3 indicating that he knew President Clinton and once offered him a place to sleep in his office during Clinton's presidency. See Pl.'s Ex. L ("Dwight Opperman: The Q&A"). Plaintiffs argue that this connects Cafesjian to the Court because the undersigned was appointed to the federal judiciary by ...

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