CHUUK STATE SUPREME COURT APPELLATE DIVISION

Cite as Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90 (Chk. S. Ct. App.2007)

[15 FSM Intrm. 90]

SAWAKO MATHIAS and FICHITA BOSSY,

Appellants,

vs.

ROSE ENGICHY and TAKASY SOUKON,

individually and on behalf of the Sapunupi of

Nikoupup Clan in Mwan Village,

Appellants,

vs.

NITE PAUL and IOSI LUDWIG, and on behalf of

the children of Neikun, Kimono and Ludwig,

Appellants,

vs.

WENO MUNICIPALITY and the MAYOR OF WENO

MUNICIPALITY, in his official capacity,

Appellees.

CIVIL APPEAL CASE NO. 02-1996

OPINION

Decided:  June 14, 2007

BEFORE:

Hon. Midasy O. Aisek, Associate Justice, Presiding

Hon. Benjamin Rodriguez, Temporary Justice*

Hon. Repeat Samuel, Temporary Justice**
 

*Associate Justice, Pohnpei Supreme Court, Kolonia,Pohnpei

**Attorney at Law, Weno, Chuuk
 

APPEARANCES:

For the Appellants:  Jack Fritz, Esq.

   (Mathias et al.)      P.O. Box 788

                                 Weno, Chuuk   FM   96942
 

For the Appellants:   Tony Rosokow

   (Engichy et al.)      P.O. Box 613

                                 Weno, Chuuk   FM   96942

[15 FSM Intrm 91]

For the Appellants:   Hans Wiliander

    (Paul et al.)           P.O. Box 389

                                 Weno, Chuuk   FM   96942

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HEADNOTES

Jurisdiction; Property; Property ) Land Commission

     Courts have no jurisdiction to hear cases with regard to interests in land in land registration areas unless there has been a showing of special cause, and a finding by the court, that action by a court is desirable or the Land Commission has asked the court to assume jurisdiction without the Land Commission having made a determination. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 95 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure; Judgments

      Rule 52(a) requires a trial judge, after trial, to make special findings of fact and separate conclusions of law. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 95 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure ) Injunctions

      A trial court judge is required by Rule 52(a) to make findings of fact and conclusions of law when granting or refusing a preliminary injunction. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 95 n.4 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure; Judgments

      The requirement that the trial court "find the facts specially" serves three major purposes: 1) to aid appellate court review by affording it a clear understanding of the ground or basis of the trial courtís decision; 2) to make definite precisely what the case has decided in order to apply the doctrines of estoppel and res judicata in future cases and promote confidence in the trial judgeís decision-making; and 3) to evoke care on the trial judgeís part in ascertaining the facts. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 95 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure

      When a court has not previously construed an civil procedure rule which is identical or similar to a U.S. rule, it may look to U.S. sources for guidance in interpreting the rule. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 n.5 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure; Judgments

      The trial court satisfies its responsibility to make specific findings of fact when the findings are sufficiently detailed to inform the appellate court of the basis of the decision and to permit intelligent appellate review, but the trial court need not mention evidence it considers of little or no value. As long as the trial court clearly relates the findings of fact upon which the decision rests and articulates in a readily intelligible manner the conclusions it draws by applying the controlling law to the facts as found, no more is needed. The trial court has the obligation to ensure that the basis for its decision is set out with enough clarity to enable the reviewing court to perform its function. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      The appellate court reviews factual findings on a clearly erroneous standard, and questions of law de novo. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

[15 FSM Intrm 92]

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When the appellate court is unable to make any meaningful review of the trial court judgment because of the virtually complete absence of any findings of fact or conclusions of law and when a trial court has failed to make the findings of fact required by Rule 52(a), or if the findings are insufficient for a clear understanding and effective appellate review of the basis of the trial courtís decision, the appellate court will vacate the judgment and remand the case to the trial court to make the required findings. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When, because of the lack of findings of fact and conclusions of law by the trial court, the appellate court cannot determine whether the judgment was founded on an erroneous or a correct view of the law or whether the record could support a factual basis for the decision, the judgment must be vacated and the case remanded with orders that the trial court enter findings of fact and conclusions of law accordingly. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When the trial courtís findings are inadequate, the appellate court should not try to resolve the factual issues itself, but should vacate the judgment and remand because it is not the appellate courtís place or function to make factual findings in the first instance or to supplant the trial court and act as fact finder. Remand is appropriate because the trial court had the opportunity to view the witnesses as they testified and to observe their demeanor before reaching its conclusions as to the witnessesí credibility, and the appellate court did not. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96-97 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When the appellate court has remanded a case to the trial court because the lower courtís findings were inadequate, the trial judge must make his findings of fact and separately state his conclusions of law used to arrive at his decision, and, to assist, the trial judge may consult the transcripts, the filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, and, if necessary, he may also take further evidence. Mathias v. Engichy, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 97 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

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COURTíS OPINION

MIDASY O. AISEK, Associate Justice:

      This appeal arises from the trial courtís January 17, 1996 judgment in Civil Action No. 84-1990, in which several groups of claimants all asserted that each was the owner of a certain parcel of land on Weno.  For the reasons stated below, we vacate the trial court judgment and remand the matter to the trial court for it to make proper findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I.   Procedural History

A.  Trial Level

      On July 11, 1990, Nite Paul and Iosi Ludwig filed a complaint to quiet titleto land they called Nukunanang, on which Weno municipal government buildings, Weno jail, and Mwan Elementary School stood.  The Weno municipal government andthe Weno mayor ("Weno") were the named defendants.   The complaint alleged that Nukunanang had been given to their predecessors in interest (Neikun, Kimono, andLudwig) by Chief Mailo in Japanese times, and that one of them had given Nukunanang

[15 FSM Intrm 93]

to the municipality to use, but not to own.  It also sought injunctiverelief and moved for a temporary retraining order, which was granted.

     On July 16, 1990, Weno filed its answer and affirmative defense. On July 23,1990, Takasy Soukon and Miter Nakayama (Intervenors #2) filed their complaint inintervention and their motion to intervene. Intervenors #2 alleged that the landin dispute was named Neichipwelong, not Nukunanang, and that the disputed landwas lineage land of their Sapunupi clan.  On July 24, 1990, Sawako Mathias and Fichita Bossy (Intervenors #1) filed their complaint in intervention and their motion to intervene.  Intervenors #1 alleged that Nukunanang was lineage land of their Sapunupi clan, and that Nukunanang had been given to Weno municipality to use so long as the Sapunupi clan held the highest executive position in the municipal government.

      Trial was held in January, 1991.  Weno municipality moved to dismiss the case at the end of trial. The motion was later briefed by Weno and by Intervenors #1.  On August 19, 1994, Weno filed its proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.  On September 16, 1994, Intervenors #1 filed their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.  On January 17, 1996, the trial judge entered his judgment.  That judgment awarded part of the land to the plaintiffs; stated that either the plaintiffs or Intervenors #1 owned the parcel of land where Mwan Elementary School and Weno jail are located and referred that question to the Land Commission to decide between the two; dismissed Intervenors #2 from the suit because Intervenors #2 had stated that they had no interest in Nukunanang; and ordered the parties to bear their own costs.

B.  Appellate Level

     Appeals were filed in February 1996.  Briefs from the Sawako Mathias appellants, the Miter Nakayama (now represented by Rose Engichy) appellants, and the Nite Paul appellants were filed in October 1998. Oral argument was set for December 11, 1998.  For reasons not apparent from the record, argument was continued and then set for February 11, 2000.  That argument was continued because counsel for the Paul appellants had gone to Honolulu for medical treatment. Oral argument was next set for December 14, 2001.  That argument was continued because counsel for the Mathias appellants had gone to Honolulu to participate in the Compact negotiations.  Counsels for the Nakayama and Paul appellants appeared and consented to the continuance.  The following court order set argument for the next available appellate sitting and stated that no further continuances were contemplated.

     Oral argument was next set for April 30, 2007.  When the case was called on that date, counsel for the Mathias appellants and for Weno Municipality appeared. Counsel for the Nakayama and Paul appellants did not.  At the hearing, we indicated that we were willing to rule based on the briefs, but were uncertain whether the non-appearing parties had proper notice of the hearing and therefore ordered that any party could file a supplemental brief no later than May 31, 2007 and further ordered that each party had to indicate whether they needed oral argument or were willing to submit the case on the briefs.

     On May 31, 2007, the Paul appellants filed a motion for substitution of counsel and to extend time to file a supplemental brief, but did not state a need for oral argument.  The presiding justice granted the substitution of counsel and denied any further extension of time.  No other party filed anything.

[15 FSM Intrm 94]

      We considered that the parties had then waived their right to oral argument.  Under our appellate rules, "[o]ral argument shall be allowed in all cases unless the panel of three justices of the State Court Appellate Division, after examination of the briefs and record, shall be unanimously of the opinion that oral argument is not needed."  Chk. App. R. 34(a).  Since we were unanimously of the opinion that oral argument was not needed, we issued an order considering this case submitted for our decision.

II.   Partiesí Positions

      The Paul appellants (plaintiffs) contend that the trial judge erred because, in their view, the evidence clearly showed that all of Nukunanang is one piece of land and that they own all of it.  They further state that Chief Petrus Mailoís 1971 affidavit of title that Weno municipality owned Nukunanang was done solely to get Trust Territory government funding to build Mwan School and did not transfer or reflect the true title or ownership.  They contend that it was error to divide Nukunanang and to remand to Land Commission the question of who owned the portion where the school and the jail are.

     The Engichy/Nakayama appellants (Intervenors #2) contend that the trial judge erred because, in their view, the evidence clearly showed that Nukunanang was not the dry land in dispute but was nearby tideland and that the land in dispute was Neichipwelong, to which their ancestors had given Mailo a use right the land, and that Mailo had been assimilated into the Sapunupi Clan from the Sousat Clan.  They further contend that they are the true Sapunupi and the true owners of the disputed land and that the trial judge erred in not awarding the disputed land to them.  They add that although the use right their ancestors gave Mailo was done in good faith and Mailoís descendants have long lived on the land, Intervenors #2 retain ownership under Chuukese custom and tradition and foreign legal concepts such as adverse possession should not divest them of their ownership rights.

     The Mathias appellants (Intervenors #1) raise as issues on appeal:  1)  whether the trial court had jurisdiction over the case when the disputed land was part of a land registration area and no special cause why court action (instead of Land Commission determination) was desirable; 2) whether the judgment was valid when it failed to follow the requirements of Civil Procedure Rules 52 and 58; 3)  whether the judgment was supported by substantial evidence in the record; and 4) whether the judgment was consistent with public policy.  They contend that public policy should prohibit the partial judgment entered by the trial court since it required further costly litigation over part of Nukunanang, which was unsupported by any evidence at trial, when the parties had all asked that question of title to all of Nukunanang be resolved.  They contend that the judgment was clearly erroneous because the trial courtís effort to subdivide Nukunanang and create new boundaries for Nukunanang was unsupported by the record.  They further contend that the trial court judgment is void because it is not in compliance with Civil Procedure Rule 52 requirement that the trial court find facts specially since the trial court judgment contains no findings of fact.  And Intervenors #1 contend that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the case since Weno is a land registration area and a court cannot entertain a land dispute in a land registration area unless the court has either found a showing of special cause that court action is desirable or the Land Commission itself has referred the case to the court, and neither happened in this case.

[15 FSM Intrm 95]

III.   Discussion

A.  Jurisdiction

      The Mathias appellants are correct that all of Weno is a land registration area, Barker v. Paul, 6 FSM Intrm. 473, 475, 1 CSR 1, 3 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994), and that courts have no jurisdiction to hear cases with regard to interests in land in land registration areas unless there has been a showing of special cause, and a finding by the court, that action by a court is desirable, 67 TTC 105; Barker, 6 FSM Intrm. at 476, 1 CSR at 3, or the Land Commission has asked the court to assume jurisdiction without the Land Commission having made a determination, 67 TTC 108(4). The Mathias appellants contend that the record does not suggest any "special cause" existed or that the trial court had promptly notified the Land Commission, as required by statute, 67 TTC 105, that it was assuming jurisdiction.

      We cannot locate in the written record any court finding of special cause or prompt notification to the Land Commission.  We do note that some of the relief sought ) injunctive relief ) is not relief available from the Land Commission.  We also note the averment in the plaintiffsí complaint that in June 1990 the Land Commissionís Senior Land Commissioner, Mitaro Danis, "made another request to the State Court to reconsider taking jurisdiction of this special case." Complaint ∂ 7.

     It may be that the trial court considered that to be a Land Commission referral to the court in compliance with 67 TTC 108(4).  Or it may be that the trial court considered injunctive relief to constitute special cause.  Since we intend to remand this case for the trial judge to make his findings of fact and conclusions of law, we will require the judge to include in those findings and conclusions the basis for his jurisdiction over the case.

B.   Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

      "In all actions tried upon the facts the court shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon, and judgment shall be entered pursuant to Rule 58 . . . ." Chk. Civ. R. 52(a). Rule 52(a) requires a trial judge, after trial, to make special findings of fact and separate conclusions of law.  The trial courtís January 17, 1996 judgment was abrupt and contained only the judgeís decision, as stated above.  See supra pt. II.A.  It did not contain any findings of fact or conclusions of law.  The decision was presumably arrived at by finding facts and applying Chuukese law to those facts.  But what facts were found and what law was applied to them?

      The requirement that the trial court "find the facts specially" serves three major purposes: 1)  to aid appellate court review by affording it a clear understanding of the ground or basis of the trial courtís decision; 2)  to make definite precisely what the case has decided in order to apply the doctrines of estoppel and res judicata in future cases and promote confidence in the trial judgeís decision-making; and 3)  to evoke care on the trial judgeís part in ascertaining the facts. 9A Charles Alan Wright &

[15 FSM Intrm 96]

Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure ß 2571, at 478-80 (2d ed. 1995).  Purposes number one and three are implicated in this case.

      The trial court satisfies its responsibility to make specific findings of fact when the findings are sufficiently detailed to inform the appellate court of the basis of the decision and to permit intelligent appellate review, but the trial court need not mention evidence it considers of little or no value. Krieger v. Gold Bond Bldg. Prods., 863 F.2d 1091, 1097 (2d Cir. 1988). "As long as the trial court clearly relates the findings of fact upon which the decision rests and articulates in a readily intelligible manner the conclusions it draws by applying the controlling law to the facts as found," no more is needed. Sierra Fria Corp. v. Evans, 127 F.2d 175, 180 (1st Cir. 1997). The trial court has the obligation to ensure that the basis for its decision is set out with enough clarity to enable the reviewing court to perform its function. Id.

      We review factual findings on a clearly erroneous standard, Chk. Civ. R. 52(a); Narruhn v. Aisek, 13 FSM Intrm. 97, 99 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2004), and questions of law we review de novo, Phillip v. Moses, 10 FSM Intrm. 540, 543 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2002).  But in this case, we are unable to make any meaningful review of the trial court judgment because of the virtually complete absence of any findings of fact or conclusions of law.  We can glean from the judgment that the trial court must have found that the disputed land was Nukunanang and not Neichipwelong, but how or why he arrived at that finding we can only guess.  The trial judge also appears to have found that Weno has a use right for the land since it did not award Weno title to it, or any part of it, but how or why he reached that point is unknown.  Even gleaning these "findings" from the judgment, the judgment remains woefully inadequate as findings of fact, or as conclusions of law.

C.  Remand

      When a trial court has failed to make the findings of fact required by Rule 52(a), or if the findings are insufficient for a clear understanding and effective appellate review of the basis of the trial courtís decision, an appellate court will vacate the judgment and remand the case to the trial court to make the required findings. 9A Wright & Miller, supra, ß 2577, at 514-18.  When, because of the lack of findings of fact and conclusions of law by the trial court, the appellate court cannot determine whether the judgment was founded on an erroneous or a correct view of the law or whether the record could support a factual basis for the decision, the judgment must be vacated and the case remanded with orders that the trial court enter findings of fact and conclusions of law accordingly. Sellers v. Wollman, 510 F.2d 119, 122 (5th Cir. 1975).

      We cannot determine from the trial court judgment whether it was based on correct view of the law or whether the record could support a factual basis for it.  Some of the appellants appear to ask the court to review the entire record and make our own findings of fact (in their favor, of course).  But when the trial courtís findings are inadequate, the appellate court should not try to resolve the factual issues itself, but should vacate the judgment and remand.  Rule v. International Assín of Bridge, Structural & Ornamental Ironworkers, 568 F.2d 558, 568 (8th Cir. 1977).  It is not the appellate courtís place or function to make factual findings in the first instance or to supplant the trial court and act as fact finder. Rosokow v. Bob, 11 FSM Intrm. 454, 457 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2003).  Remand is appropriate because the trial court had the opportunity to view the witnesses as they testified and to

[15 FSM Intrm 97]

observe their demeanor before reaching its conclusions as to the witnessesí credibility, and we do not.  Sellem v. Maras, 9 FSM Intrm. 36, 38 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1999).

      On remand, the trial judge shall make his findings of fact and separately state his conclusions of law used to arrive at his decision, which, since the preparation of factual findings will evoke care on the trial judgeís part in ascertaining the facts, may or may not result in the same outcome as his January 17, 1996 decision.  He shall include in his decision the basis of the trial courtís jurisdiction over this case.  We realize that it has been quite some time since the trial was held and the judgeís memory has undoubtedly faded.  However, a transcript was prepared, which the trial judge may consult, and two sets of proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law were filed, which he may also consult, and, if necessary, he may also take further evidence.  Rosokow v. Bob, 11 FSM Intrm. 210, 217 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2002) (when appellate court remands a case to the trial court on the ground that the lower courtís findings are inadequate the reviewing court may require or recommend that the trial court take additional evidence).

IV.   Conclusion

      Accordingly, the trial courtís January 17, 1996 judgment is hereby vacated and the case is remanded to the trial court for it to make its findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Civil Procedure Rule 52(a) before entering a judgment on a separate document in conformity with Rule 58.  The findings and conclusions shall include the basis of the trial courtís jurisdiction.  The parties shall bear their own costs.

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Footnotes:

1.   The presiding justice also granted a January 17, 2000 motion to substitute Rose Engichy for Miter Nakayama.

2.   Chief Mailoís son.

3.   The current version of the Civil Procedure Rules, adopted September 17, 1997, deleted the word "separately" from between the words "state" and "its conclusions of law." The language quoted above is the rule in effect at the time the trial court judgment was entered.

4.   The trial court judge also failed to make any findings of fact or conclusions of law when he issued the preliminary injunction in this case, as also required by Rule 52(a) ("and in granting or refusing interlocutory injunctions the court shall similarly set forth the findings of fact and conclusions of law which constitute the grounds of its action"). No party raised this point on appeal so we will not discuss it further.

5.   When a court has not previously construed an civil procedure rule which is identical or similar to a U.S. rule, it may look to U.S. sources for guidance in interpreting the rule. See Bualuay v. Rano, 11 FSM Intrm. 139, 146 n.1 (App. 2002); In re Engichy, 11 FSM Intrm. 555, 557 n.1 (Chk. 2003). The pertinent part of the pre-1997 Chuuk Rule 52(a) is identical to U.S. Federal Rule 52(a).

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