KOSRAE STATE COURT TRIAL DIVISION

Cite as Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007)

[15 FSM Intrm. 450]

HEIRS OF JESSE WAKAP,

Appellants,

vs.

HEIRS OF PALIKKUN OBET,

Appellees.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 87-06

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION; JUDGMENT; ORDER OF REMAND

Aliksa B. Aliksa

Chief Justice

Argued:  August 16, 2007

Decided:  December 27, 2007

[15 FSM Intrm 451]

APPEARANCES:

For the Appellants:   Albert Welly

                                 Kosrae State Legislature

                                 P.O. Box 187

                                 Tofol, Kosrae FM 96944
 

For the Appellees:   Snyder H. Simon, Esq.

                                 P.O. Box 1017

                                 Tofol, Kosrae FM 96944

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HEADNOTES

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

        The standard of review for appeals from the Kosrae Land Court is set by statute. Land Court findings and decisions will be overturned if they are not supported by substantial evidence or if they are contrary to the law. In considering whether the decision is based upon substantial evidence, the Kosrae State Court recognizes that it is primarily the Land Court’s task to assess the credibility of the witnesses, the admissibility of evidence and to resolve factual disputes. If findings are adequately supported and the evidence has been reasonably assessed, the findings will not be disturbed on appeal. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 453 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

Judgments

       "Law of the case" refers to the principle that once issues are decided in a case, they will not be redetermined later in the same case.  This is a policy relied on by courts out of concern for judicial economy and to avoid the confusion that would result if a court reversed its own decisions during the course of a case. In the absence of statute the phrase, "law of the case," as applied to the effect of previous orders on the later action of the court rendering them in the same case, merely expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided, not a limit to their power. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 453 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases; Judgments

       When an issue is decided at trial and later reversed on appeal due to legal error, the findings of fact still bind the trial court on remand as law of the case. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 453-54 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases; Judgments

      When the original decision had been reviewed by the Kosrae State Court on appeal and remanded for the purpose of considering new evidence and when the only new evidence was rejected, the findings of fact made in the original decision should bind the Land Court on remand. When, in its second decision, it reconsidered the evidence previously offered and made different, conflicting findings than in the original decision, applying the principle of law of the case, the findings in favor of the appellants’ ownership of the subject parcel in the original decision are upheld. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 454 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      The Land Court is responsible for assessing the credibility of the witnesses, the admissibility of evidence and resolving factual disputes. If its findings are adequately supported and the evidence has been reasonably assessed, the findings will not be disturbed on appeal. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of

[15 FSM Intrm 452]

Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 454 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases; Judgments

       When the Land Court’s first decision, assessed the evidence and made findings of fact supporting the appellants’ ownership of the parcel and its second decision, issued two years later, rejected new evidence and assessed the identical evidence to make findings of fact supporting the appellees’ ownership of the parcel, the matter presents the kind of confusion that results when a court reopens what it has already decided. Evidence often conflicts and may reasonably support inconsistent findings. But the Land Court cannot redetermine factual issues decided earlier in the case without new evidence to support a different decision. When the Kosrae State Court was presented with the question of whether the original decision was based on substantial evidence at the time of the first appeal and remanded the case back to Land Court for the purpose of looking at new evidence but did not remand based on a lack of substantial evidence to support the original decision, the doctrine of law of the case applies to uphold the original findings of fact as based on substantial evidence and the original determination of title in favor of the appellants. Heirs of Wakap v. Heirs of Obet, 15 FSM Intrm. 450, 454 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2007).

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COURT’S OPINION

ALIKSA B. ALIKSA, Chief Justice:

       On July 17, 2006, Heirs of Jesse Wakap, Appellants, filed an appeal of the decision of the Land Court that was issued on May 17, 2006 issuing a decision in favor of Heirs of Palikkun Obet, Appellees, on Parcel 028U01, known as Selmea. After several enlargements of time were granted at the requests of the parties, briefs were completed by August 10, 2007 and argument was held on August 16, 2007. Albert Welly represents Appellants and Snyder Simon represents Appellees.

I. Analysis and Conclusions.

Procedural Background

      This case was the subject of a previous appeal, Heirs of Obed v. Heirs of Wakap, 13 FSM Intrm. 337 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2005), Case. No. 41-04, decided on July 8, 2005. The decision issuing title of 028U01, Selmea, to HO Wakap was remanded in that previous appeal. This Court held that:

the rights of the Appellants [HO Obet] were violated when the purported hand written statement of Palikkun Obed was summarily rejected by the Land Court, without offering the pro se Appellants an opportunity to offer foundation and authentication of the hand written statement, and the Appellees the opportunity to cross examine the same. The KLCRP are required to be liberally construed in order to . . . assist the parties in obtaining just . . . determination of every action and proceeding before the Court. KLCRP Rule 2.B. The summary rejection of the statement submitted by the Appellants was made in violation of KLCRP as it did not allow consideration of all evidentiary submissions, and was contrary to law.

[Id. at 340.]

      The Land Court held a hearing following remand on April 4, 2006. Both parties were represented at this hearing. The Land Court considered, and rejected, the hand written statements that were to be

[15 FSM Intrm 453]

considered on remand. But, it also changed the earlier decision and awarded the ownership of Selmea to HO Obet instead of to HO Wakap.

       After considering the testimony offered, the Land Court held that HO Obet did not offer sufficient foundation and did not establish authenticity of the written statements. Exs. A and B. The Court noted that there was no chain of custody for Exhibit A. It questioned who wrote Exhibit A, because the only signatures on the document were those of Tulen Oran and Isaiah Benjamin; there was no signature by Palikkun Obet. For Exhibit B, the Court noted that the document gives Palikkun Obet’s statements about what Wakap said about the land and related family activities, but that the testimony from the HO Obet did not support the document. Despite rejecting the only new evidence, the Land Court reversed its earlier ruling and stated it was relying primarily on HO Obet’s stronger history of use on the parcel to now award ownership to HO Obet.

II. Analysis

Standard of Review

      The standard of review for appeals from the Land Court are set by statute. Findings and decisions of the Land Court will be overturned if they are not supported by substantial evidence or if they are contrary to the law. Kos. S.C. § 11.614. In considering whether the decision is based upon substantial evidence, this Court recognizes that it is primarily the task of the Land Court to assess the credibility of the witnesses, the admissibility of evidence and to resolve factual disputes. Anton v Heirs of Shrew, 10 FSM Intrm. 162 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2001). If findings are adequately supported and the evidence has been reasonably assessed, the findings will not be disturbed on appeal. Tulenkun v. Abraham, 12 FSM. Intrm. 13, 17 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2003).

Issues on Appeal

HO Wakap presents two main issues on appeal:

1.  The Land Court impermissibly extended the scope of its review on remand.

2.  The findings were not based on substantial evidence.

Analysis: Issue 1

       Appellants argue that the Land Court went beyond the scope of remand when it reconsidered all the testimony and reversed its earlier without any accepting new evidence. The essence of this argument is that the earlier State Court appellate decision and the earlier underlying decision represent the law of the case.

      "Law of the case" refers to the principle that once issues are decided in a case, they will not be redetermined later in the same case.  This is a policy relied on by courts out of concern for judicial economy and to avoid the confusion that would result if a court reversed its own decisions during the course of a case. "In the absence of statute the phrase, `law of the case,’ as applied to the effect of previous orders on the later action of the court rendering them in the same case, merely expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided, not a limit to their power." Messinger v. Anderson, 225 U.S. 436, 444, 32 S. Ct. 739, 740, 56 L. Ed. 1152, 1156 (1912), (citing King v. West Virginia, 216 U.S. 92, 100, 30 S. Ct. 225, 229, 54 L. Ed. 396, 401 (1910); Remington v. Central P. R.R., 198 U.S. 95, 99, 100, 25 S. Ct. 577, 49 L. Ed. 959, 963 (1905); Great Western Tel. Co. v. Burnham, 162 U.S. 339, 343, 16 S. Ct. 850, 852, 40 L. Ed. 991, 993 (1896)). For example, when an issue is decided at trial and later reversed on appeal due to legal error, the findings

[15 FSM Intrm 454]

of fact still bind the trial court on remand. See United States v. Alexander, 106 F.3d 874, 876-77 (9th Cir. 1997) (holding prior evidentiary ruling in same action to be law of the case). This principle was also applied in Damarlane v. United States, 7 FSM Intrm. 350 (Pon. 1995) where the Court refused to redetermine factual issues decided earlier in the proceedings.

      Here, the first decision considered the available evidence, gave appropriate evidentiary weight to testimonies based on hearsay or not subject to cross examination, and gave appropriate weight to documentary evidence offered without foundation or authentication in the original proceeding with one exception; it did not assess the handwritten statements offered by Appellants after the hearings had ended. Because the parties were not represented and could have had the statements considered if they had been properly offered, this Court held it was appropriate to remand the matter to the Land Court to consider the statements and re-hear the matter. On remand, the Land Court rejected this new evidence. In its second decision, it reconsidered the evidence previously offered and made different, conflicting findings that in the original decision. There is no reference to any other new evidence.

       This is an appropriate matter to apply the principle of law of the case. In the second decision, the Land Court did not use new evidence; it reconsidered the original evidence to reach a different result. The original decision had been reviewed by this Court on appeal and remanded for the purpose of considering new evidence. When the only new evidence was rejected, the findings of fact made in the original decision should bind the Land Court on remand. Applying the principle of law of the case, the findings in favor of Appellants’ ownership of the subject parcel in the original decision are upheld.

Analysis: Issue 2

       The Appellants also raised the issue of whether the decision was based on substantial evidence. The Land Court is responsible for assessing the credibility of the witnesses, the admissibility of evidence and resolving factual disputes. Anton v Heirs of Shrew, 10 FSM Intrm. 162 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2001). If findings are adequately supported and the evidence has been reasonably assessed, the findings will not be disturbed on appeal. Tulenkun v. Abraham, 12 FSM. Intrm. 13, 17 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2003). In this case, the Land Court’s assessment of the evidence presents a conflicting picture. In the first decision, issued on March 10, 2004, the Land Court assessed the evidence and made findings of fact supporting Appellants’ ownership of the parcel. In its second decision, issued two years later, the Land Court rejected new evidence and assessed the identical evidence to make findings of fact supporting Appellees’ ownership of the parcel, the opposite decision. This matter presents the kind of confusion that results when a court reopens what it has already decided. This Court recognizes that evidence often conflicts and may reasonably support inconsistent findings. However, we are unwilling to allow the Land Court to redetermine factual issues decided earlier in the case without new evidence to support a different decision. In addition, this Court was presented with the question of whether the original decision was based on substantial evidence at the time of the first remand. That order remanded the case back to Land Court for the purpose of looking at new evidence and did not remand based on a lack of substantial evidence to support the original decision. Finally, we note that the original decision was two years closer in time to the original assessment of credibility of the witnesses. Based on these factors, the doctrine of law of the case applies to support upholding the original findings of fact as based on substantial evidence and the original determination of title in favor of Appellants.

III. Judgment.

       Judgment is entered in favor of the Appellants and against the Appellees. The Land Court decision, entered on May 17, 2006, for parcel 02801, also known as Selmea, is vacated and set aside as void.

[15 FSM Intrm 455]

IV. Order of Remand.

       This matter is now remanded to Kosrae Land Court for further action. The Land Court shall issue a decision based on the existing files, records, and proceedings. It shall apply the doctrine of law of the case to exclude the hand written statements and to award title of 028U01 consistent with the previous decision.

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