Case of the Day: Sabeniano v. Citibank

The case of the day is Sabeniano v. Citibank N.A. New York (S.D.N.Y. 2013). Modesta Sabeniano, a Philippine national, had had several accounts with Citibank branches in Switzerland, New York, and the Philippines in the 1970s. In 1985, she sued Citibank in the a Philippine court, alleging that Citibank refused to pay her amounts it held in her account. Citibank’s answer asserted that it had made loans to Sabeniano and that it had offset the balance of the loans against the amounts on account after Sabeniano failed to make required payments. In 1995, the Philippine trial court entered a judgment in favor of Sabeniano, and the case was appealed ultimately to the Philippine Supreme Court. After appeals, Supreme Court issued a judgment in 2006, which became final in 2007.1 Citibank deposited a check for approximately $400,000 with the court to satisfy the judgment, and the Philippine Supreme Court entered an order establishing that Citibank had satisfied the judgment.

In 2012, Sabeniano sued Citibank in New York. She alleged that in 2002, the Philippine Supreme Court had entered a judgment awarding her more than $13 million, and she sought recognition and enforcement. She claimed that she became aware of the judgment in March 2011—before the judgment was supposedly issued—and that she asked the Supreme Court to authenticate it. She submitted a certificate authenticating the judgment, but it was issued by the Philippine court of appeals, not the Supreme Court. Citibank asserted that the judgment was inauthentic and a forgery. It asked the Philippine Supreme Court to verify the judgment. The court issued a notice stating that it had not entered a decision on the date of the supposed 2002 judgment and ordered Sabeniano to show cause why she should not be cited for contempt of court.

The parties cross-moved for summary judgment. The key issue was the authenticity of the 2002 judgment. The judge properly denied Sabeniano’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that her evidence was not credible. This requires a little explanation. You can’t grant a summary judgment that relies on making determinations about which side’s evidence is more credible, since questions of fact are to be determined at trial. But it’s proper to deny a motion for summary judgment if the movant’s evidence seems incredible, a point I made in a discussion of one of Judge Kaplan’s decisions in the Lago Agrio case.

Citibank’s motion did not rest on the lack of credibility of the plaintiff’s evidence, and rightly so. It would have been improper, I think, for the court to decide, on summary judgment, that the judgment proffered by Sabeniano was inauthentic. Instead, Citibank argued that the 2006 judgment, which came years after the supposed 2002 judgment, should be recognized, and that once recognized, it was res judicata.

The judge found that the 2006 judgment was entitled to recognition under the UFMJRA. Not only did Sabeniano fail to make any arguments against recognition; she herself was seeking recognition for a Philippine judgment and thus could hardly argue, for example, that the Philippine courts were not impartial, etc. Once he recognized the judgment, the judge held, again apparently correctly, that the 2006 judgment was res judicata.

  1. I make no effort to get the details of the Philippine procedure right.

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