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United States v. $822

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 30, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
$822, 694.81 IN UNITED STATES CURRENCY, SEIZED FROM ACCOUNT NO. XXXXXXXX7424, HELD IN THE NAMES OF GODWIN EZEEMO AND WINIFRED C.N. EZEEMO, AT BANK OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          RULING ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Donna F. Martinez, United States Magistrate Judge

         This is a civil forfeiture action filed by the government against $822, 694.81 in account funds.[1] On March 23, 2012, the government seized the defendant property from a Bank of America ("BOA") account in the names of Godwin and Winifred Ezeemo (the "Ezeemos"). The government alleges that the $822, 694.81 (the "defendant currency") is subject to forfeiture pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 981[2] because it is the product of money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(A)(i) or because it is the product of wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343. (ECF #1, Verified Compl. ¶6.)

         Earlier in the case, the law firm of Weycer, Kaplan, Pulaski & Zuber ("Weycer"), Bank of New Canaan n/k/a Bankwell ("Bankwell"), Deborah Stuckey ("Stuckey"), and Leon Li-Heng Wu ("Wu") (hereinafter the "intervenors") intervened to contest the forfeiture alleging that they were victims of the fraud around which the case is centered and have an ownership interest in the defendant currency. Each now moves for summary judgment, seeking as relief a judgment in the amount of its loss: Weycer seeks a judgment in the amount of $194, 340 (ECF #136); Stuckey seeks a judgment in the amount of $40, 000 (ECF #115); Bankwell seeks a judgment in the amount of $154, 210.86 (ECF #150); and Wu seeks a judgment in the amount of $660, 000. (ECF #144.)[3] For the reasons that follow, the motions are denied.

         I. Legal Standard

         "A moving party is entitled to summary judgment where the record reveals '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)." Natofsky v. City of New York, 921 F.3d 337, 344 (2d Cir. 2019). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law," and a dispute is "genuine" if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" based on it. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "The evidentiary standard that must be met by the moving party is a high one, since a court is obliged 'to draw all inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought,' Ramseur v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 865 F.2d 460, 465 (2d Cir. 1989), and to 'construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party,' United States v. All Funds Distributed to Weiss, 345 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2003)." United States v. Collado, 348 F.3d 323, 327 (2d Cir. 2003).

         II. Background

         The following facts, taken from the parties' submissions, are undisputed unless otherwise noted. (ECF ##115, 136, 137, 144, 146, 150, 151.)

         The Ezeemos are Nigerian citizens who operate businesses in Nigeria. They had U.S. suppliers. When Godwin Ezeemo needed United States currency to pay U.S suppliers, he contacted an individual named Abubaker Lade ("Lade") in Lagos, Nigeria. Lade worked in Lagos as a "marketer" for a local Nigerian Bureau de Change that handles private foreign currency transactions. Godwin Ezeemo used a Bureau de Change to obtain U.S. dollars because he was able to move more money more quickly than he would if he used a bank. (ECF #147-4, Ezeemo Dep. at 14.)

         Ezeemo ordered from Lade "bulk" purchases of U.S. dollars such as $500, 000 at a time. They negotiated the exchange rate. Ezeemo gave Lade the BOA account information so Lade could deposit or wire the U.S. dollars into the Ezeemo account. Lade shared the Ezeemos' BOA account information with others. Over time, Lade caused many deposits in varying amounts to be made into the Ezeemos' BOA account. Lade gave Godwin Ezeemo the wire confirmation receipt and/or deposit slip for every wire transfer or deposit into the BOA account. After Godwin Ezeemo saw the online confirmation of payment into his BOA account, he paid Lade in naira (Nigerian currency) for each transaction. The Ezeemos used the U.S. currency that was deposited into the BOA account to pay for their purchases from U.S companies.

         According to Godwin Ezeemo, he did not know how Lade obtained the funds that were deposited into the Ezeemos' BOA account. When Ezeemo reviewed his account, it showed wire transfers from various individuals, none of whom Ezeemo knew. Ezeemo did not know the source of the money nor did he know the identities of the people making deposits.

         Some of the money deposited into the BOA account was obtained fraudulently.

         Wu

         Wu claims he was duped into transferring money into the Ezeemos' BOA account. According to Wu, he had an online relationship in 2011 with a woman named "Salerno Joan," who purported to live in London. Salerno told Wu that she had inherited $60 million and wanted to move to the United States, marry him, and share her inheritance. But first Salerno needed Wu to pay "fees" to help Salerno obtain the inheritance. In response, Wu wired - in various increments - $660, 000 into the Ezeemos' BOA account.[4] Salerno never came to the United States, shared any inheritance, or returned the money to Wu. (ECF #1 at 13.)

         Weycer

         Weycer asserts it too is a fraud victim. In February 2012, a person holding himself out as a mortgage broker contacted Weycer seeking representation to recover a defaulted loan. The purported broker furnished Weycer with a CitiBank check payable to the firm in the amount of $195, 340. He told Weycer that the check was a partial payment on the defaulted loan and directed the firm to keep $1, 000 as a retainer and forward the remaining $194, 340 to a Bank of America account. That account was the Ezeemos' BOA account. Weycer deposited the check into its Amegy Bank trust account and on February 9, 2012 wired $194, 340 to the BOA account as instructed. ...


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