KOSRAE STATE COURT TRIAL DIVISION

Cite as Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008)

[15 FSM Intrm 657]

HEIRS OF CLINTON BENJAMIN,

Appellants,

vs.

HEIRS OF ISAIAH BENJAMIN,

Appellees.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 117-06

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION; JUDGMENT;

ORDER OF REMAND TO KOSRAE LAND COURT

Aliksa B. Aliksa

Chief Justice

Hearing:  March 19, 2008

Decided:  June 9, 2008

APPEARANCES:

For the Appellants:   Chang B. William

                                 % Kosrae State Legislature

                                 P.O. Box 187

                                 Tofol, Kosrae FM 96944
 

For the Appellees:    Sasaki L. George, Esq.

                                 Micronesian Legal Services Corporation

                                 P.O. Box 38

                                 Tofol, Kosrae FM 96944

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HEADNOTES

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

     The Kosrae State Court is required to apply the "substantial evidence rule" to all appeals from Land Court decisions. If the Kosrae State Court finds that a Land Court decision was not based upon substantial evidence, or that the Land Court decision was contrary to law, it must remand the case to the Land Court with instructions and guidance for re-hearing the matter. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 661 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      On appeal, the appellate court will review the evidence in the light most favorable to the appellee, and findings will be upheld when there is credible evidence to support them, in part because the trial court viewed the witnesses and their manner during testimony. If, upon viewing all the evidence in the record, the appellate court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, it may then conclude that the trial court’s finding was clearly erroneous, but it cannot substitute its judgment for that of the trial court. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 661

[15 FSM Intrm 658]

(Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      It was clear error by the Land Court to dismiss, based on a finding of lack of corroboration, a witness’s testimony about the existence of an agreement to divide the land when a review of the record shows testimony from a number of witnesses referring to the existence of an agreement. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 661 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      A remand is proper when the court, reviewing the record as a whole, is convinced that the Land Court’s decision is not based on substantial evidence because the Land Court found no corroborating evidence for a witness’s testimony about an agreement to divide land but the record shows multiple witnesses testified regarding an agreement to divide land; because the Land Court made inconsistent findings regarding the effect of failing to exclude other heirs from using the land; and because the Land Court made no findings regarding the use of different portions of the land despite testimony from multiple witnesses that different heirs used different portions. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 661-62 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Courts; Property ) Land Court

      The Kosrae Land Court is statutorily created as an inferior court within the State Court. It was created for specific purposes ) title investigation, title determination, and the registration of interests in lands within Kosrae and to provide one system of filing all recorded interests in land. Thus, it is a court granted specific, limited jurisdiction. It is not a court of general jurisdiction. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity

      "Equity" describes a specific set of legal principles used in countries that follow English common law. At one point in history, courts of law and courts of equity (also called courts of chancery) were separate systems with jurisdiction over different types of cases, having different procedures and offering different remedies. Over time, particularly in the United States, courts merged into a unified jurisdiction where an action at law and a suit in equity became less distinct. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity

      An equitable remedy:  1)  cannot take cognizance of any case wherein the common law can give complete remedy; 2)  cannot interpose in any case against the legislature’s express letter and intention since if the legislature means to enact an injustice, however palpable, the court of equity is not the body with whom a correcting power is lodged; and 3)  shall not interpose in any case which does not come within a general description and admit of redress by a general and practicable rule.  Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity

      An equitable remedy does not apply unless:  1)  there is no adequate remedy at law; 2)  it does not conflict with any statute; and 3)  it rests on existing legal obligations (it does not create a new obligation or duty where none existed before) and follows legal precedent. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity; Property ) Land Court

      Equitable relief is not generally necessary for a court to resolve disputes relating to title because establishment of title is available by law. This is true for the Kosrae Land Court. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

[15 FSM Intrm 659]

Equity; Property ) Land Court; Property ) Registered Land

      Common law, or case law, and statutes provide the basis for Land Court orders, in other words, a complete and adequate remedy. The Legislature established the Land Court’s authority to hear and decide title determinations. Statutes require that Land Court decisions not be contrary to law and must be based on substantial evidence. Case law guides the Land Court on what constitutes substantial evidence to support a decision; this is legal precedent. The Land Court must establish title based on substantial evidence by considering the testimony and record before it. There is no need to resort to equitable jurisdiction to make a title determination. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 662-63 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity

      A complex record that takes time to assess, is not normally grounds to rely on equity. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 663 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Equity

      A court must make its findings and show it is relying on substantial evidence even if using equitable jurisdiction, because an order must be based on sufficient evidence. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 663 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

Appellate Review ) Standard of Review ) Civil Cases

      When the Land Court relied on equity jurisdiction instead of substantial evidence as required by statutory authority and precedent, its decision was contrary to law and the matter will therefore be remanded to it with instructions and guidance for re-hearing the matter. Heirs of Benjamin v. Heirs of Benjamin, 15 FSM Intrm. 657, 663 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2008).

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COURT’S OPINION

ALIKSA B. ALIKSA, Chief Justice:

      This is an appeal from a Decision issued by the Kosrae Land Court on August 18, 2006 for Parcels 038U01 and 038U03, also known as Wan Utwe, in Utwe Municipality. Appellants' brief was filed on September 6, 2007 and Appellees' brief was filed on February 6, 2008. This matter was set for hearing on March 19, 2008. Chang William appeared for the Appellants. Sasaki George, MLSC appeared on behalf of the Appellees.

      Appellants dispute the division of ownership made by the Kosrae Land Court, claiming that the Land Court did not reasonably assess evidence about use of the parcels and about the existence of an agreement among the Benjamin brothers to divide the land when it awarded Parcel No. 038U03 to HO Isaiah Benjamin. Appellants also claim legal error by the Land Court when it relied on equity jurisdiction to divide the ownership of the land.

      Based upon the record in this matter, arguments made at the hearing and applicable law, I find in favor of Appellants. This Memorandum of Decision explains the Court’s decision and reasoning, and remands this matter back to the Kosrae Land Court for further proceedings.

[15 FSM Intrm 660]

I.  Analysis and Conclusions.

Facts

      This matter concerns ownership of Parcels 038U01 and 038U03, also known as Wan Utwe. The ownership of two neighboring parcels, 022U01 and 022U02, the lower part of Wan Utwe, is also in dispute. No determination of ownership has been issued for the lower part of Wan Utwe.

      All of Wan Utwe originally belonged to Benjamin. He had three sons, Isaiah, Tolennoa, and Clinton. Isaiah was the oldest and his name was registered on the 1932 Japanese survey map for the land now known as Parcels 038U01 and 038U03.

      Alice Bryan William testified that the three brothers reached an agreement about dividing Wan Utwe into three parts. Clinton testified that Isaiah got the Walung side, Tolennoa got the middle, and Clinton got the east portion. Clinton cultivated his portion of Wan Utwe from 1933 to 1952 and lived there for a short time. He left Kosrae in 1952 and returned only for visits in 1957 and 1965. He returned to Kosrae to live in 1974. According to Clinton’s testimony at a hearing in 1988, he checked on this land during his visits and Isaiah assured him that he still owned the eastern portion assigned to him. At that same hearing, one of Clinton’s sons, Leonard, testified that Isaiah told him the land belonged to Clinton in 1958. This happened in front of Wilmer, one of Isaiah’s sons.

      Rison Waguk also testified at that hearing. He testified that the three brothers, Isaiah, Clinton, and Tolennoa, met in 1976 and discussed and reconfirmed the agreement to divide the Wan Utwe property among them.

      There was another witness who testified about the agreement, as well. Shrew Nena and his wife, Tulpe, lived with Isaiah and took care of him when he got older. Tulpe was the daughter of Isaiah and also adopted by Clinton. During a visit from Clinton, Shrew Nena heard a discussion about the Wan Utwe land and Isaiah told Clinton that the agreement to divide the land was still in effect.

      The Land Court found that there was no corroboration of Alice Bryan William’s testimony about the agreement to divide the land. It also questioned why Appellants did not exclude Appellees from the land if they were owners. It held that Appellants did not have substantial evidence to prove the agreement.

      According to Alice Bryan William’s testimony, Appellants worked on the portion given to Clinton and Appellees worked on the portion given to Isaiah, which was the lower portion. Clinton testified in the 1988 hearing that Isaiah only used the eastern section to harvest breadfruit before 1952 and that Isaiah did not plant crops or cultivate Clinton’s land because Isaiah had his own "Walung" side.

      There was testimony that Appellees used the eastern section belonging to Clinton. Appellant argues that the only portion Appellees used was on the lower part of Wan Utwe, on Parcel 022U00, and that their use of Clinton’s land was limited to the lower section, which is not part of this appeal.

      The Land Court found that Appellants worked on Parcels 038U01 and 038U03 with the knowledge of Appellees. And, the Land Court found that Clinton and Appellants, and Isaiah and Appellees, both used Parcels 038U01 and 038U03. Last, it found that Isaiah never tried to stop Appellants from entering the parcels. Relying on the joint usage of the parcels, the Land Court held that equity jurisdiction should be used to divide the parcels between them and awarded 038U01 to Appellants and 038U03 to Appellees. 038U01 is about 13,561 square meters and 038U03 is about 91,847 square meters.

[15 FSM Intrm 661]

Standard of Review

      The provisions of Kosrae State Code, Section 11.614 are applicable to appeals made from a decision entered by the Kosrae Land Court. Pursuant to Section 11.614(5)(b), this Court is required to apply the "substantial evidence rule" to all Land Court decisions. If this Court finds that the Land Court decision was not based upon substantial evidence, or that the Land Court decision was contrary to law, this Court must remand the case to the Land Court with instructions and guidance for re-hearing the matter. Kos. S.C. § 11.614(5)(d). See also Heirs of Noda v. Heirs of Joseph, 13 FSM Intrm. 21, 23 (Kos. S. Ct. Tr. 2004).

      On appeal, this Court reviews the evidence in the light most favorable to the Appellee. Findings are upheld when there is credible evidence to support them, in part because the trial court viewed the witnesses and their manner during testimony. If, upon viewing all the evidence in the record, the appellate court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, it may then conclude that the trial court’s finding was clearly erroneous, but it cannot substitute its judgment for that of the trial court. Livaie v. Weilbacher, 13 FSM Intrm. 139, 143 (App. 2005).

Issue 1: Did the Land Court Reasonably Assess Evidence about Use of Parcels and Existence of an Agreement?

      We begin with the argument that the Land Court erred when it found no corroborating evidence for Alice Bryan William’s testimony on the agreement to divide the land. Several other witnesses testified about the existence of the agreement, including Clinton himself, Isaiah’s son Wilmer Benjamin, Shrew Nena, married to Isaiah’s daughter, Rison Waguk, and others. A review of the record shows testimony from a number of witnesses referring to an agreement. It was clear error by the Land Court to dismiss her testimony based on a finding of lack of corroboration.

      The Land Court’s findings are inconsistent on the issue of control and use of the land, as well. The decision found that Clinton and Appellants used the land but questions Clinton’s control over these parcels by asking why he did not discourage others from entering the land. These factors are relied on to hold that Appellants did not have substantial evidence to prove the agreement to divide Wan Utwe or support their claim of ownership. But, the decision also found that Isaiah knew of Appellants’ use of the land and that he never tried to stop Appellants’ from entering the parcels. This finding is then relied on to support Appellees’ claim of ownership. How can Appellees’ use of land and failure to exclude Appellants corroborate their ownership and control at the same time that Appellants’ use of land and failure to exclude Appellees corroborate a lack of ownership and control?

      Finally, there are no finding of fact addressing if different portions of Wan Utwe were in use by different heirs and, if that is the case, which heirs used which portions of Wan Utwe. The ownership of two neighboring parcels, also part of Wan Utwe, is being decided in a different case; Appellants state that the use of the neighboring parcel was relied on to claim ownership of this parcel; several witnesses testified that different heirs used different portions of Wan Utwe; and, there was some evidence about an agreement to divide the land. Under these circumstances the Land Court erred when it failed to make findings about whether different parts of Wan Utwe were under the use and control of different heirs.

      When reviewing the record as a whole, this Court is convinced that the Land Court’s decision is not based on substantial evidence. It found no corroborating evidence for a witness’ testimony about an agreement to divide land when the record shows multiple witnesses testified regarding an agreement to divide land. It made inconsistent findings regarding the effect failing to exclude other heirs from using the land. Last, it did not make any findings regarding the use of different portions of Wan Utwe

[15 FSM Intrm 662]

despite testimony from multiple witnesses that different heirs used different portions. Under these circumstances, a remand is proper.

Issue 2: Was the Land Court’s decision contrary to law when it relied on equity jurisdiction to divide the land among the heirs?

      The Land Court, without explaining its reasoning, applied "equity jurisdiction" to divide the parcels between the two groups of claimants. As described below, a reliance on equity jurisdiction does not relieve a court of an obligation to follow precedent and to base its decision on substantial evidence.

      The Land Court is statutorily created as an inferior court within the State Court. It was created for specific purposes, "title investigation, title determination, and the registration of interests in lands within this State and to provide one system of filing all recorded interests in land. Kos. S.C. § 11.603. Thus, it is a court granted specific, limited jurisdiction; it is not a court of general jurisdiction.

      "Equity" describes a specific set of legal principles used in countries that follow English common law. At one point in history, courts of law and courts of equity (also called courts of chancery) were separate systems with jurisdiction over different types of cases, having different procedures and offering different remedies. Over time, particularly in the United States, courts merged into a unified jurisdiction where an action at law and a suit in equity became less distinct. See generally 27A Am. Jur. 2d Equity (1996).

      Even though courts in the United States are generally under a unified system, the distinction between legal and equitable remedies still exists. Thomas Jefferson explained the limitation on a court’s equity jurisdiction in 1785. His explanation is still valid today. An equitable remedy:

1.  Cannot take cognisance of any case wherein the common law can give complete remedy;

2.  Cannot interpose in any case against the express letter and intention of the legislature. If the legislature means to enact an injustice, however palpable, the court of Chancery is not the body with whom a           correcting power is lodged; and,

3.  Shall not interpose in any case which does not come within a general description and admit of redress by a general and practicable rule.

      In modern words, Jefferson’s explanation sounds more familiar. An equitable remedy does not apply unless:

1.  There is no adequate remedy at law;
2.  It does not conflict with any statute; and
3.  It rests on existing legal obligations (it does not create a new obligation or duty where none existed before) and follows legal precedent.

      See generally 27A Am. Jur. 2d Equity, §§ 4, 5, 108-18 (1996).

      Equitable relief is not generally necessary for a court to resolve disputes relating to title. Establishment of title is available by law. See generally 27A Am. Jur. 2d Equity § 55 (1996). This is true for the Land Court on Kosrae. Common law, or case law, and statutes provide the basis for orders by the Land Court, in other words, a complete and adequate remedy. The Legislature established the authority of the Land Court to hear and decide title determinations. Statutes require that Land Court

[15 FSM Intrm 663]

decisions cannot be contrary to law and must be based on substantial evidence. Kos. S.C. § 11.614(5)(d). Case law guides the Land Court on what constitutes substantial evidence to support a decision; this is legal precedent. The Land Court must establish title based on substantial evidence by considering the testimony and record before it. There is no need to resort to equitable jurisdiction to make a determination of title.

      The record here is complex. It contains conflicting evidence, some of it from hearings held years ago. This kind of record takes time to assess and the Land Court may have been in a hurry. Perhaps the Land Court saw this as a reason for looking at equitable jurisdiction. However, that is not normally grounds to rely on equity. 27A Am. Jur. 2d Equity § 43 (1996). The Land Court may have been using equity as a way of explaining what it considered to be fair and within its discretion, given the complexity of the record. But, it must still make its findings and show it is relying on substantial evidence. Even when using equitable jurisdiction, an order must be based on sufficient evidence. Id. § 83.

      Because the Land Court relied on equity jurisdiction instead of substantial evidence as required by statutory authority and precedent, its decision is contrary to law.

      Accordingly, this Court finds that the Land Court's title determination for Parcels 038U01 and 038U03 was not based on substantial evidence and was contrary to law. Therefore, this matter must be remanded to the Kosrae Land Court with instructions and guidance for re-hearing the matter.

II.  Judgment.

      Judgment is entered in favor of Appellants and against Appellees. The Land Court decision, dated August 18, 2006 on Parcels 038U01 and 038U03 is vacated and set aside as void.

III.  Order of Remand.

      This matter is now remanded to Kosrae Land Court for further proceedings. Kosrae Land Court shall hold hearings and issue written findings and a decision on parcel Parcels 038U01 and 038U03, consistent with the statutory and procedural requirements. The Kosrae Land Court shall issue the decision on both parcels to reflect their ownership. All proceedings shall be conducted according to the following instructions:

1.  The Land Court shall provide notice and hold hearings, as required by Kosrae State Code, Title 11, Chapter 6, the KLCRP and General Court Orders.

2.  The Land Court may also consider any evidence, including testimony, which was received at the prior hearings, giving appropriate evidentiary weight to those testimonies which were based upon hearsay or       not subject to cross examination, and giving appropriate evidentiary weight to documentary evidence which were offered without foundation or authentication.

3.  This matter shall be assigned highest priority by the Land Court, and shall be assigned for hearing and further action by the first Land Court Justice who is available to hear and adjudicate this matter.

4.  The Kosrae Land Court shall complete all hearings within 120 days, and shall issue its written findings and decision within 120 days after the close of the hearings, as provided by law.

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