Langbord family loses appeal to regain ownership of 1933 double eagles

Family attorney vows to appeal case to United States Supreme Court
By , Coin World
Published : 08/02/16
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It looks like the government will get the keep the Langbord family’s 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagles that were allegedly discovered in a family’s safe deposit box shortly after the sole 1933 double eagle that can be privately owned was sold for $7.6 million in 2002. A decade-long legal battle between the family and the government followed to decide ownership of the valuable coins. 

In an Aug. 1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, nine judges joined a 60-page decision finding that while there were errors at the trial level, these mistakes did not affect the outcome. In doing this, the majority sided with a jury’s 2011 decision awarding the coins to the government. 

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The majority concluded its case by stating: “This case is unique for many reasons. It involves iconic American gold pieces that apparently had lain dormant in a safe-deposit box for decades. Almost immediately after the 1933 Double Eagles surfaced in 2002, the right to possess and own them was vigorously disputed. The resolution of that dispute required the District Court to consider novel questions of constitutional, statutory, and common law. The able trial judge worked diligently through all of the issues and gave both sides a fair trial. Once the jury had spoken, the District Court declared that the 1933 Double Eagles had always been property of the United States. Although the benefit of hindsight has convinced us that certain errors were committed in the conduct of the trial, they did not affect the outcome. We will affirm the judgment of the District Court.”

Voluntarily surrendered

The government has long argued, “All 1933 Double Eagles are, and always have been, property belonging to the United States” and that the Langbord family had “voluntarily surrendered” the coins to the Mint. Joan Langbord said she found the coins in the back of a safe deposit box alongside property that had belonged to her father, Philadelphia jeweler and occasional coin dealer Israel Switt. Her two sons, David and Roy, joined her in the lawsuit. 

Shortly after discovering the coins, the Langbord family through their attorney, Barry Berke, presented the 10 coins to the government for authentication. The Mint did not return the coins, claiming them as stolen property. In December 2006 the family brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the Mint, the Department of the Treasury, and various federal officials, requesting that the government either initiate a forfeiture proceeding or return the coins. 

That district court ruled in favor of the Langbords, finding that the Mint seized the coins unlawfully and that the family’s constitutional due process rights were violated. 

The case went to trial in July 2011 in which a jury ruled in favor of the government. On Aug. 29, 2012, the district court confirmed that the coins were not lawfully removed from the Mint and remained property of the government, regardless of how the coins came into the family’s possession or applicable forfeiture statutes. 

A contested point was if the government had appropriately filed its forfeiture complaint back in 2009 within a 90-day statutory deadline. In April 2015, two judges in a three-judge panel within the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned much of the district court’s rulings, finding that the government missed a crucial deadline under Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. The panel’s majority effectively overturned the 2011 jury decision and ordered that the coins be returned to the family. While agreeing that the government did not meet the deadline, one judge in the three-judge panel differed and was of the opinion that this should not result in the return of the coins. 

The split decision likely emboldened the government, and it filed a petition for rehearing en banc on July 28, 2015. With this, all 12 judges in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals would hear the case and decide. Oral arguments followed on Oct. 15, 2015. 

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