7ASR3d294

Series: 7ASR3d | Year: () | 7ASR3d294
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HC LIUFAU for himself

and members of the LIUFAU FAMILY, Plaintiffs

 

v.

 

TC TUFAGA OF AUA and

TAGISIAALII FAUMUINA, Defendants

 

High

Court of American Samoa

Land

and Titles Division

 

LT

No. 07-03

LT

No. 23-90

LT

No. 1418-74

LT

No. 1412-74

 

November

10, 2003

 

 

[1] The best

evidence of land ownership in American Samoa is actual occupation with a claim

of ownership. 

 

[2] Possession

of real property is the best evidence of ownership and carries with it the

presumption of ownership.

 

[3] A mere

claim to land without accompanied use or occupation is insufficient to acquire

title thereof.

 

[4] Where

testimony of village elders clearly demonstrated use and occupation of

property, historically, by one family over that of rival family, court found

that land should be registered in name of family with such occupation and

usage. 

 

Before

KRUSE, Chief Justice, LOGOAI, Associate Judge, and MAMEA, Associate Judge.

 

Counsel:

         For Plaintiffs, Marie A. Lafaele

                        For

Defendants, Asaua Fuimaono

 

OPINION

AND ORDER

 

Historical Background

 

This

is an enduring dispute, spanning generations, between the Liufau family and the

Tufaga family of Aua over an area of land in the village bisected by the main

east-west highway.  The disputed area is

claimed by the former as being a part of land “Leasi,” communal property

of the Liufau family, while the Tufaga family claims it as being a part of “Feagai,”

communal property of the Tufaga family.

 

1.

1903 Litigation

 

The

parties’ respective predecessors were earlier before the court in 1903 when

Tufaga Fa`aso`oso`o and two other matai of Aua village filed suit against

Liufau Mativa “claiming ownership to six pieces of land situated in the village

of Aua and held in possession of Liufau Mativa of the same place.”  Tufaga v. Liufau, 1 A.S.R. 184, 185 (Trial

Div. 1909) (hereafter the “1903 case”). 

Unfortunately for posterity, “[n]o plans were filed but the names of the

different pieces [of land] were given as Vaitulitai, Vaituliuta, Leasi,

Alele, Lesolo, and Taufusi.”  Id.

(emphasis provided).  Although the 1903

case was decided in favor of the Liufau family, we have today, exactly 100

years later, a quarrel between the parties over the physical location of Leasi.  This location dispute has been pending since

1973.

 

2.

Post-1903

 

From

files with the Clerk’s office, we find that the parties’ predecessors had

apparently managed to coexist harmoniously until Tufaga Faafua (“Faafua”)

offered a Separation Agreement in May 1972 on land he claimed as “Matautu-Feagai.”  Liufau Unutoa Sonoma (“Unutoa”) objected

claiming that Faafua had encroached on the Liufau family land Leasi.  The dispute was referred to the Land and

Titles Division and given the docket number LT No. 1279-72.

 

Apparently,

while this Separation Agreement matter was pending, Unutoa commissioned a

survey of the area, calling it Leasi, which he offered for registration

as the communal property of the Liufau family on November 15, 1973.  Evidently, nobody objected to Unutoa’s offer

and, consequently, he filed an application with the Land and Titles Division to

register his offer.  See In re Land

Leasi, LT No. 1412-74.

 

Then, on January 10, 1974, Tufaga also offered for registration his surveyed

claim of the land, calling it “Feagai,” and claiming it as his family’s

communal land.  The result was

overlapping surveys before the Territorial Registrar.  Tufaga’s offer, however, was timely objected

to by Unutoa who claimed that Tufaga’s survey encroached on his family’s land Leasi.  This dispute was also referred to the Land

and Titles Division.  See Liufau v.

Tufaga, LT No. 1418-74.  These

matters were eventually consolidated.

We next see that the American Samoa Government (“ASG”) intervened to, as it

turns out, mistakenly claim an interest in the shoreline area on the seaward

side of the road depicted in both Unutoa’s and Faafua’s respective

surveys.  Nonetheless, the Court, because

of ASG’s claim,[1]

denied both the Liufau and Tufaga families’ registration offers, as well as Tufaga’s

Separation Agreement offer, finding that neither party had proven “a clear

right to the entire tract offered.”  Liufau

v. Tufaga, LT Nos. 1279-72, 1412-74, 1418-74, slip op. at 2 (Land &

Titles Div. Dec. 30, 1976).

Following this, both Unutoa and Faafua filed new trial motions; however, while

these motions were pending, ASG discovered its mistaken assertion of ownership

to the disputed area and moved, ironically on April 1, 1977, to withdraw “on

the ground that subsequent evidence . . . has come to our attention clearly

indicat[ing] the Government has no interest, except a right of way easement, on

the land in question.”  The motion was

granted and with ASG out of the case, the remaining parties Unutoa and Faafua

stipulated in open court on February 6, 1978, “to reopen” the registration

matters.  These matters have since

languished and remained pending.

In 1990, a Tufaga family member, Tagisiaalii Faumuina, began bulldozing inside

the disputed area.  This action in turn

spawned yet another file with the Clerk’s office, see Liufau v. Tufaga,

LT No. 23-90.  This case resulted in a

preliminary injunction against both families from any further activity on the

disputed land.  However, Unutoa passed

away that same year and LT No. 23-90 was forgotten until a new generation of

family members, as well as another succession of legal advisers, entered the

picture.  Shortly after Unutoa’s death,

Faafua’s successor Tufaga Tavita (“Tavita”), commissioned yet another, and enlarged,

survey of Feagai (the “1990 survey”). 

This time, the survey separately described the area seaward of the

highway that ASG had once claimed and subsequently withdrawn from.  This 1990 survey was also offered by Tavita

for registration, and this offer was objected to by a Liufau family member,

Fagamalama Liufau Fuaalau, on behalf of the Liufau family.  This new dispute eventually found its way to

the Land and Titles Division on April 16, 2003, and was assigned the docket

number LT No. 07-03.  In the meantime,

Unutoa’s son Tanielu had, in 1999, succeeded his father to the Liufau title,

while the Tufaga title, left vacant with the passing of Tavita, was succeeded

by the present Tufaga Sapati.

These matters finally came to the forefront again after the incumbent Liufau

began to build earlier this year within the disputed land area.  Following a show cause hearing, Liufau

stipulated to stopping his construction work pending final disposition by the

Court, and these matters were placed for expedited trial.

Trial was held August 11-14, 2003.  Following

a subsequent site visit to the disputed area and the filing of the parties’

written final arguments thereafter, these consolidated matters were taken under

advisement.

Discussion

[1-2] As with all these disputes, the

best evidence of land ownership in American Samoa is “[a]ctual occupation with

a claim of ownership.”  Lualemana v.

Atualevao, 16 A.S.R.2d 34, 43 (Land & Titles Div. 1990). Possession of

real property is the best evidence of ownership and carries with it the

presumption of ownership.  Tuato`o v.

Taua`a, 17 A.S.R.2d 163, 166 (App. Div. 1990); see also Muagututi`a

v. Savea, 4 A.S.R. 483, 485 (Trial Div. 1964); Soliai v. Lagafua, 2

A.S.R. 436, 438 (Trial Div. 1949); Fa`ataliga v. Fano, 2 A.S.R. 376, 337

(Trial Div. 1948).  Indeed, in Tufaga

v. Liufau, 1 A.S.R. at 186, the Liufau family’s claim to land ownership,

coupled with their actual possession of the disputed lands, prevailed over the

Tufaga, Sao, and Maulupe families’ mere claims to ownership based solely on

tradition without any “solid foundation of fact.”

1. Findings

In assessing both parties’ opposing versions of the evidence, we find that

Liufau’s claim to ownership and actual occupation is better corroborated by

credible independent sources.  The

disputed area today is in large part a relatively flat area nestled up against

the face of a sheer rock cliff that quite clearly was, as testified to by

surveyor Lawrence French, the result of a massive quarrying and excavation

operation in the past.  The cliff drops

suddenly from a hilly mountainous bush area that ascends steeply inland.  Judging from the topography exhibits

presented and from our observation of an area adjacent to and outside of the

excavation cut, it appears that the excavated area had also descended to sea

level following the surrounding contours of the hillside.

 

Chief

Ponausuia Lusi Fale, who is seventy years of age and a life-long resident of

Aua except for a fifteen year off-island stint with the United States Navy,

testified that he was well familiar with the disputed site having grown up in

the area, and having harvested crops, cut firewood, and worked on the disputed

site with three of Liufau Tausolia’s children Veni, Siela and Satini; that the

land was known as Leasi and was owned by Liufau; and that his family is

located immediately to the Pago side of Leasi.  Ponausuia further testified that the area had

greatly changed after the Navy Seabees had dynamited and excavated Leasi

during the second world war, in order to provide fill for a repair base in

Atu`u where the canneries are presently located.  Ponausuia also testified that the main

east-west highway that used to run along the shoreline was subsequently moved

further inland such as to traverse Leasi.  This relocation of the road occurred shortly

after a fatal landslide that not only destroyed certain structures used by the

Mormon Church, but also killed the faifeau (pastor) and others including

a relative of Chief Sao.  Ponausuia

placed the location of the then Mormon compound at between 50 to 100 feet from

the location of Liufau Tanielu’s present disputed construction site.  According to Ponausuia, the slide did not

affect Leasi.

Ponausuia’s testimony regarding the excavation and the relocation of the main

highway was corroborated by seventy-seven year old Chief Saoimanulua Solosolo

(“Sao”).  Sao, whose predecessor-in-title

was a party to the 1903 case that awarded Leasi to Liufau, testified

that he too was familiar with the disputed area which he knew to be Liufau’s

land Leasi.  Additionally, Sao’s

testimony was in accord with Ponausuia’s as to the location of the early Mormon

Church compound, which he placed to the east of Leasi on an area of land

he estimated to be about an acre.  Sao

also testified as to the occurrence of a severe landslide around 1944 that not

only swept away the structures used by the Mormon Church, but also took the

lives of his sister and others.  Sao

likewise affirmed that following the landslide, the coastal road was moved

inland bisecting Leasi.

The documentary exhibits received into evidence further revealed that the

Liufau family received compensation from the United States Government for crop

and other property damage claims on Leasi caused by the war effort.  From ASG’s archives came corroborative proof

relating to property damage claims made and filed by Liufau Tausolia and Unutoa

before the War Claims Commission.  These

exhibits attest to Liufau’s claim for crop destruction, attributed to the “See

Bees,” on two acres of Liufau family land referred to as Asi and a 40 x

1600 square yard area of Vaituliuta. 

Liufau’s testimony was that “Asi” and “Leasi” are one and the same

reference, and that the land Leasi derived its name from Asi trees that

grew on the elevated slopes of the land. 

Moreover, these war claims exhibits present and added dimension of

credibility to Liufau’s position over Tufaga’s. 

The latter would have us believe that Leasi’s seaward side

boundary-line runs approximately atop the excavated area.  If we accept this, then we must also accept

that the war effort included some sort of defense activity up on “two acres” of

steep, hilly and elevated terrain.  We

would also have to accept that the Liufau family had at least “two acres” of

compensable food crops growing among the Asi forest on hillside.  We find such a state of affairs to be

unlikely.

Liufau further testified that the various six tracts of land awarded in the

1903-case were all connected, pointing out that two of these tracts, Vaituliuta

and Vaitulitai, were located next to Leasi, with the latter two

circumscribing what Tufaga now claims as Feagai.  According to Liufau family history, they had

long ago relinquished claim to Feagai following a grant of the land by

Liufau Mativa to a female family member who haled from either Leone or

Se`etaga.  Liufau’s father Unutoa had

related to him that the relinquished area was surveyed by the Meredith family

and that the area surveyed was less than an acre in size.  With that family history, the Liufau family

has left the Tufaga family’s use of the circumscribed area undisturbed.

Liufau further testified that while growing up in the village during the 1950s,

his family had fenced-in the excavated, and disputed, area for use as a piggery

enclosure.  He further testified that

between the pig fence and the road, his family maintained their banana

plantations while to the seaward side of the present highway, his grandmother

Leutu had openly maintained a sugar cane grove for roof thatching and that

subsequently, his father had authorized the building of the village’s first

longboat shed in the area.  This

testimony was not controverted.

By comparison, the Tufaga family’s claim to the overlap area lacks any of the

hallmarks of use and occupation, as was established for the Liufau family by independent

credible testimony from elderly matai of the village and by documentary

exhibits attesting to the Liufau family’s assertion of ownership interests in

dealings with the United States Government. 

Contrast Tagisiaali`i’s opposing testimony on behalf of the Tufaga

family, to Liufau’s recollections of life growing up in the area.  Unlike Liufau, Tagisiaali`i was not raised in

the village of Aua.

Moreover,

we find the Tufaga family’s claim to the seaward side of the road, as reflected

in their 1990 resurvey, to be tentative and uncertain; being rather deferential

toward ASG that had thirteen years earlier, in 1977, unconditionally abandoned

any claim to the area.  Contrast the

Liufau family’s claim to this area; it has not only remained unequivocal throughout,

but the claim is coupled with credible evidence of actual use and occupation.

 

[3-4]

As cases have long established, a mere claim to land without accompanied use or

occupation is insufficient to acquire title thereof.  Ilaoa v. Toilolo, 1 A.S.R. 602, 604

(Trial Div. 1938); Soliai, 2 A.S.R. at 438.  Like the 1903 case, we also find that Tufaga

family’s claim to the overlap is without “solid foundation of fact.”  See Tufaga, 1 A.S.R. at 186.  What the credible independent corroborative

evidence has shown with regards to the Tufaga family’s interests is that they

lie east of the disputed land area.  As

borne out by the testimony of village elders, the extent of the Tufaga family’s

use and occupation in the vicinity was concentrated outside of the overlap

within an area approximating an acre. 

This Tufaga area was the early location of the Mormon Church in the

village of Aua.

Conclusions

On the foregoing, we are satisfied that the evidence preponderates in favor of

the Liufau family’s claim and, therefore, conclude that the disputed overlap

area is a part of the land Leasi, belonging to the Liufau family.  Title may be registered accordingly to the

Liufau family.

It is so ordered.

 


**********

 



[1]  The claim was apparently based

on A.S.C.A. § 37.2050, which reads:

The public highway declared and proclaimed by Regulations No. 15 and

No. 16, 1900, enacted 3 September 1900 by B.F. Tilley, Commander, U.S.N.,

Commandant, and amended by W. Evans, Captain, U.S.N., on 10 May 1921, extending

from Blunt’s Point on the southern side of Pago Harbor, toward Observatory

Point and around the harbor to Breaker’s Point on the northern side of the

harbor, along the shore at highwater mark, of a uniform width of 15 feet

distant inland from the shore, the land included in the description being

condemned and appropriated for public uses, is recognized as a public highway,

and the rights of the government and public thereto is asserted.

The government later discovered that the government road

had, since the condemnation action, been moved some distance inland.  Thus it had asserted a claim to land that was

not subject to the condemnation statute.