CHUUK STATE SUPREME COURT APPELLATE DIVISION

Cite as Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007)

[15 FSM Intrm. 146]

ECHEN NAKAMURA and

her MASANO LINEAGE OF IRAS,

Appellants,

vs.

STATE OF CHUUK,

Appellee.

CIVIL APPEAL NO. 04-1999

OPINION

Argued:  June 14, 2007

Decided:  June 27, 2007

BEFORE:

Hon. Dennis K. Yamase, Temporary Justice, Presiding*

Hon. Aliksa B. Aliksa, Temporary Justice**

Hon. Benjamin Rodriguez, Temporary Justice***
 

*Associate Justice, FSM Supreme Court, Chuuk

**Chief Justice, Kosrae State Court, Tofol, Kosrae

***Associate Justice, Pohnpei Supreme Court, Kolonia, Pohnpei
 

APPEARANCES:

For the Appellant:   Camillo Noket, Esq. (brief)

                                Frank Casiano (argued)

                                Micronesian Legal Services Corporation

                                P.O. Box D

                                Weno, Chuuk   FM   96942

[15 FSM Intrm 147]

For the Appellee:    Ready Johnny, Esq. (motion)

                                Julius Sapelalut, Esq. (argued)

                                Office of the Chuuk Attorney General

                                P.O. Box 189

                                Weno, Chuuk   FM   96942

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HEADNOTES

Civil Procedure ) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

      For the doctrine of res judicata to apply, there must be an existing, final judgment that has been decided on the merits without fraud or collusion by a court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction. The doctrine bars any further litigation of the same issues between the same parties or anyone claiming under those parties. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 149 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure ) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel; Judgments

      Final judgments, as a rule, generally bind only the parties to the case and all those in privity with them. If a judgment is final, then the doctrine of res judicata applies, and that doctrine bars any further litigation of the same issues between the same parties or anyone claiming under those parties. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 149 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure ) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

      Res judicata does not apply when different land is involved than the previous case and the defendants are different. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 149 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases; Civil Procedure; Common Law

      Stare decisis is the doctrine of precedent, under which it is necessary for a court to follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points of law arise again in litigation. Stare decisis requires that the same rule of law previously announced be applied to any succeeding cases with similar facts. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 149-50 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure ) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

      Collateral estoppel is an affirmative defense which bars a party from relitigating an issue determined against that party in an earlier action, even if the second action differs significantly from the first one. This is also referred to as issue preclusion. Defensive collateral estoppel is an estoppel asserted by a defendant to prevent a plaintiff from relitigating an issue previously decided against the plaintiff and for another defendant. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 150 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Civil Procedure ) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

      When neither res judicata, stare decisis, nor collateral estoppel can apply another judgment to this case, it was error for the trial court to decide this case on that basis. Since the trial court finding that the two casesí facts are the same is clearly erroneous and its following legal conclusion was thus in error, the trial court should instead have made its own findings of fact and conclusions of law before reaching its decision. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 150 (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 since 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

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fact finder. Remand is appropriate since 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 has not. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 150 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When the appellate court has remanded a case to the trial court for the lower court to make findings, the trial judge must make his findings of fact and separately state his conclusions of law, and, in doing so, the trial judge may consult the transcripts and, if necessary, he may also take further evidence. Nakamura v. Chuuk, 15 FSM Intrm. 146, 150-51 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).

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COURTíS OPINION

DENNIS YAMASE, Temporary Justice, Presiding:

      This case arose from the land registration process on Weno.  The appellants, Echen Nakamura and her Masano Lineage of Iras, and the appellee, the state government, both filed claims to land called Nepuinis (or Nepinis).  The Land On March 15, 1999, the trial court issued its Order Affirming Land Court Decision.  We vacate that order and remand the case for the trial court to make its findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I.

      Nepuinis is now several parcels of land.  This case (Civil Action No. 36-1988) involves a parcel designated as Lot No. 012-A-18, on which the Chuuk Legislature currently sits, and to which the State of Chuuk currently holds title.  Adjacent Lots No. 012-A-26 and 012-A-27, on which Iras Elementary School sits, are also subject to litigation (Civil Action No. 37-1988) and are also claimed by Nakamura. Weno Municipality is the current titleholder for those lots.  On January 24, 1996, Chief Justice Soukichi Fritz, in Civil Action No. 37-1988, affirmed the Land Commission decision that Weno Municipality owned Lots No. 012-A-26 and 012-A-27.  Nakamura v. Moen Municipality, 7 FSM Intrm. 375 (Chk. S. Ct. Tr. 1996).  Chief Justice Fritzís decision in 37-1988 was appealed and the appellate division rendered a decision affirming it.  Nakamura v. Moen Municipality, 8 FSM Intrm. 552 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1998).  A timely petition for rehearing was then filed in that case and that petition remains pending before the court.

      On March 15, 1999, a different trial court judge issued the Order Affirming Land Court Decision in Civil Action No. 36-1988.  The trial courtís March 15, 1999 decision found that 37-1988 involved "essentially the same issues of fact and law as between the parties and the land in dispute."  Order at 1 (Mar. 15, 1999).  It concluded that, under the doctrine of stare decisis, since Chief Justice Fritz had affirmed the Land Commission in Civil Action No. 37-1988, the trial court was subject to binding precedent of 37-1998 and therefore affirmed the Land Commission ruling that the State owned Lot No. 012-A-18. Id. at 2.

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II.

      Nakamura timely appealed the decision concerning Lot No. 012-A-18.  On appeal, she contends that the trial court erred by relying on the judgment in Civil Action No. 37-1988 because the cases were different.  In 37-1988, the alleged buyer was Weno (Moen) Municipality, which had a signed deed to the land.  In this case (36-1988), the alleged buyer was the Truk District (predecessor to the state) government and there was no deed.  The only facts in common to both cases is that both lands were originally owned by the Masano lineage and the Land Commission had ruled that the Masano lineage had sold the land.

      Nakamura also contends that the trial court did not state any specific facts and legal conclusions so that she is unable to prepare an adequate and reasonable argument on appeal. She cites the Civil Procedure Rule 52(a) requirement that the trial court make special findings of fact and separate conclusions of law and asserts that the trial court did not comply with this rule.

      Nakamura also asserts that the trial court erred by failing to apply Chuukese land law which requires the consent of all adult lineage members before lineage land can be sold.  She contends that the trial court should have found as fact that there was no such consent so therefore the trial court erred by ruling that the government had purchased Lot No. 012-A-18.

III.

      On November 20, 2001, the State filed a motion to dismiss this appeal.  Nakamura filed her opposition on November 27, 2001.  The ground for the Stateís motion was that the matter was res judicata because of the appellate decision in 37-1988.  We denied the motion from the bench.  Our reasons follow.

      For the doctrine of res judicata to apply, there must be an existing, final judgment that has been decided on the merits without fraud or collusion by a court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction.  The doctrine bars any further litigation of the same issues between the same parties or anyone claiming under those parties.  Ungeni v. Fredrick, 6 FSM Intrm. 529, 531, 1 CSR 14, 15 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994).  Final judgments, as a rule, generally bind only the parties to the case and all those in privity with them.  If a judgment is final, then the doctrine of res judicata applies, and that doctrine bars any further litigation of the same issues between the same parties or anyone claiming under those parties.  Phillip v. Moses, 10 FSM Intrm. 540, 546 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2002).  Since the defendant in this case (the State) and in 37-1988 (Weno municipality) are different and neither claims under the other, res judicata does not apply.  Res judicata does not apply when different land is involved than the previous case and only one of the parties is the same.  Dobich v. Kapriel, 6 FSM Intrm. 199, 201 (Chk. S. Ct. Tr. 1993).  That is the case here.  The alleged sales took place on different dates, to different governmental entities, were effected in different ways by different persons acting as buyers, and only the seller, the Masano lineage, is the same party.

      It appears that the State may have been trying to assert the doctrine used by the trial court to affirm the Land Commission ) stare decisis.  Stare decisis is the doctrine of precedent, under which it is necessary for a court to follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points of law arise again in

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litigation.  Blackís Law Dictionary 1414 (7th ed. 1999).  But Civil Action No. 37-1988, even if it were final, cannot act as stare decisis for this case.  Stare decisis requires that the same rule of law previously announced be applied to any succeeding cases with similar facts.  But as pointed out by Nakamura, the facts are different in the two cases.  Although the State in this case and Weno Municipality in 37-1988 claimed to have purchased their respective lots from the Masano lineage, they claim to have effected their purchases at different times and in different ways.

      The doctrine that both the State and the trial court appear to be trying to articulate by their use of stare decisis and res judicata respectively, is collateral estoppel or issue preclusion.  Collateral estoppel is an affirmative defense which bars a party from relitigating an issue determined against that party in an earlier action, even if the second action differs significantly from the first one. Blackís Law Dictionary 256 (7th ed. 1999).  This is also referred to as issue preclusion.  Id. Defensive collateral estoppel is an "[e]stoppel asserted by a defendant to prevent a plaintiff from relitigating an issue previously decided against the plaintiff and for another defendant."  Id.

      Collateral estoppel is thus the doctrine that the trial court and the State were trying to use when they asserted that the judgment or appellate decision in 37-1988 barred Nakamuraís claims in this case.  However, as stated above, the facts are different in the two cases and so are the issues.  It cannot be said that an issue decided in 37-19888 would bar Nakamura from litigating this case. The only issue that Nakamura raises in both cases, is her assertion that Chuukese land law requires the consent of all adult lineage members to sell lineage land.  The court in 37-1988 did not rule that that is not the law in Chuuk.  So that is not an issue decided in 37-1988 that could collaterally estop Nakamura from litigating it in this case.

      Accordingly, we denied the Stateís motion to dismiss.

IV.

      For the same reasons we denied the motion to dismiss, we must vacate the trial court order affirming the Land Commission.  Neither res judicata, stare decisis, nor collateral estoppel can apply the 37-1988 judgment to this case.  The 37-1988 decision does not affect the decision in this case.  It was error for the trial court to decide this case on that basis.  The trial court finding that the two casesí facts are the same is clearly erroneous and its following legal conclusion was thus in error.  The trial court should have made its own findings of fact and conclusions of law before reaching its decision.  "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).

       We cannot presume what the trial court would have ruled if it had not found that the facts were the same as 37-1988 and concluded that stare decisis applied.  Nakamura seems to ask us to make our own findings of fact (in her favor, of course) from the record.  This we cannot do.  When the trial courtís findings are inadequate, we should not try to resolve the factual issues ourselves, but should vacate the judgment and remand.  Mathias v. Nakayama, 15 FSM Intrm. 90, 96 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2007).  It is not our 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 since 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 we have 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 and then make his decision.  We realize that it has been quite some time since the trial was held

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and the judgeís memory has undoubtedly faded.  However, a transcript was prepared, which the trial judge may 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).

V.

      Accordingly, the March 15, 1999 trial court order affirming the Land Commission is vacated and the matter is remanded to the trial court for it to make its findings of fact and its separate conclusions of law.

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Footnotes:

1.   The proceeding before Chief Justice Fritz was not a trial de novo because he ruled that the Chuuk State Supreme Court has limited review of administrative agency decisions and cannot act as a finder of fact unless it grants a trial de novo and a trial de novo is only authorized in reviewing an administrative hearing where the action is adjudicative in nature and the fact finding procedures employed by the agency are inadequate. Nakamura v. Moen Municipality, 7 FSM Intrm. 375, 377-78 (Chk. S. Ct. Tr. 1996).

2.   Also the judgment in 37-1988 is not final because the appellate mandate has not been issued yet since a timely petition for rehearing is before the appellate division.

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