278 F.3d 250 (3rd Cir. 2002), 01-1717, Club Comanche v Govt. of the Virgin Islands

Docket Nº:01-1717
Citation:278 F.3d 250
Case Date:January 14, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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278 F.3d 250 (3rd Cir. 2002)




No. 01-1717

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

January 14, 2002

Argued: December 3, 2001

On Appeal From the District Court of the Virgin Islands (D.C. Civ. No. 98-cv-00213) District Judge: Honorable Raymond L. Finch, Chief Judge

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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IVER A. Stridiron, Esquire, Attorney General, Frederick Handleman, Esquire, Solicitor General, Richard M. Prendergast, Esquire (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Virgin Islands Department of Justice, 6040 Castle Coakley Christiansted, St. Croix, V.I. 00820, for Appellant.

Bethaney J. Pichierri, Esquire, (argued), Tom Bolt & Associates, Corporate Place, Royal Dane Mall, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802, and Brian P. Kenney, Esquire, Kenney & O'Shea, 1818 Market Street - Suite 3520 Philadelphia, PA 19103, for Appellee.

Before: Becker, Chief Judge, Nygaard and Cowen, Circuit Judges.


Becker, Chief Judge.

A dispute between the Government of the Virgin Islands ("GVI") and a littoral landowner1 over the boundaries of a piece of property in downtown Christiansted, St. Croix, led to this quiet title action in the District Court of the Virgin Islands, which the District Court resolved by granting summary judgment to the plaintiff, Club Comanche, Inc. The threshold question in this appeal is whether the District Court had (or lacked) subject matter jurisdiction. Applying the "well-pleaded complaint rule," we conclude that none of the asserted bases for jurisdiction in the District Court rather than the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands -- i.e., the 1916 treaty by which Denmark transferred the Virgin Islands to the United States and the federal statutes by which the United States transferred public lands and submerged and reclaimed lands to the GVI in 1974 -- is sufficient to support federal question jurisdiction in a quiet title action brought pursuant to the Virgin Islands quiet title statute, 28 V.I.C. S 372. We will therefore vacate the District Court's order and remand with instructions to dismiss the suit without prejudice.

I. Facts & Procedural History

The case involves the disputed boundaries of the property at 40 Strand Street, which is located in the town of Christiansted. Club Comanche, Inc., the current owner of 40 Strand Street, operates a hotel and restaurant on the property. The case arises from the GVI's attempt to build a pedestrian boardwalk along Christiansted Harbor. According to Club Comanche, the GVI told the littoral landowners in Christiansted that it could not afford to exercise eminent domain and pay for the land necessary to build the boardwalk. Believing that the boardwalk would be beneficial to their businesses, the littoral landowners, including Club Comanche, agreed to grant a "perpetual easement" to the government for the boardwalk. The GVI originally agreed to this arrangement but, in Club Comanche's submission, subsequently claimed that the coastline of lot 40 actually does not belong to Club Comanche but rather to the GVI in trust for the people of the Virgin Islands. The GVI drew a new map of the area around lot 40 Strand Street, designating the northern coastal portion of the lot as "lot 40A Strand Street," and claimed ownership of the renamed parcel. In response, Club Page 253

Comanche filed this quiet title action in the District Court.

Lot 40 Strand Street is a roughly rectangular piece of property that fronts Strand Street on its southern edge. The lot is bordered on its western edge by lot 39 Strand Street. The northern and eastern borders of the property are in dispute. Club Comanche contends that its property extends northward all the way to Christiansted Harbor. The GVI submits that Club Comanche's lot does not extend all the way to the water, and that the coastal area north of lot 40, which it has designated lot 40A, belongs to the GVI.2 This dispute turns largely on the proper translation of the first document recording the dimensions of lot 40 Strand Street, the so-called Danish Measure Brief. The dimensions from the original Danish Measure Brief have appeared on the deeds to that property since 1803 (first in Danish, and later in English).

The deed by which the previous owner of 40 Strand Street conveyed the property to Club Comanche recites the following interpretation of the language from the original Danish Measure Brief:


FOR THE PROPERTY NO. 40 Strand Street, in the Town of Christiansted, on the Island of St. Croix, V.I.[,] U.S.A.

THIS IS TO CERTIFY that the above mentioned lot according to the Surveyor's Records has the following boundaries:

to the north 63 feet towards the sea

to the south 61 feet towards Strand Street

to the East 215 feet towards 55 King Street

to the West 215 feet towards 39 Strand Street

This area is about DANISH MEASURE square feet.3

Club Comanche offered testimony from its surveyor, who contacted the main Cadastral (property records) Office in Denmark, which keeps historical property records from St. Croix, stating that the Danish word "til," which the above passage translates as "towards," should actually be translated as "along" or "against." This would make the proper translation of the Measure Brief, "63 feet along the sea," "61 feet along Strand Street," and so on.4 Under this translation, Club Comanche would be a littoral landowner.

The GVI presented an affidavit from a translator that stated that the proper translation of the dimensions recited in the Danish Measure Brief is as follows:

Facing North 63' toward the Sea

[Facing] South 61' toward Strand Street

[Facing] East 215' toward 55 King's Street

[Facing] West 215' toward 39 Strand Street

The translator translated the word "facing" from the Danish word "mod," which begins the first line of the original Danish Measure Brief. According to the Page 254

translator's affidavit, "[t]he word `mod' is a shortened form of the Danish expression `med front mod,' meaning `facing' in English." The word "mod" does not precede the next three lines, but the translator inferred from its placement that it applied to all four. The translator also offered a longer interpretation of the meaning of the abbreviated phrases used on the Measure Brief, opining that:

[T]he intention of the description is to explain the size of the piece of land and where it is located. Thus, in reality what is being stated is:

The property line facing the north side toward the sea is 63 feet long.

The property line facing the south side toward Strand Street is 61 feet long.

The property line facing the east side toward 55 King's Street is 215 feet long.

The property line facing the west side toward 39 Strand Street is 215 feet long.

Thus, in order to understand how far 40 Strand Street extends towards the sea, it is necessary to look at the east and west property lines. According to the surveyor's description, the property extends 215' (Danish measure) from Strand Street in the direction of the sea, that is, northward.

Under this interpretation, given the dimensions of the disputed lot, Club Comanche would not be a littoral landowner with any claim to the area traversed by the boardwalk.

Basing its argument on the contention that the original Danish Measure Brief defined the property as running "along the sea," or northward "to the sea," Club Comanche reasoned that the rule of construction stated in 28 V.I.C. S 47(2) should apply. That section states:

When permanent and visible or ascertained boundaries or monuments are inconsistent with the measurement either of lines, angles, or surfaces, the boundaries or monuments are paramount. 28 V.I.C. S 47(2) (1996).

Club Comanche argued that because the boundary defined by reference to the sea was inconsistent with the actual distance between Strand Street and the sea, the court should, pursuant to 28 V.I.C. S 47(2), declare that the sea is the actual northern boundary of lot 40. The GVI, in contrast, contended that the translation that it offered means that lot 40 Strand Street extends northward only 215 feet from Strand Street, leaving a strip of coastline between the northern boundary of the lot and Christiansted Harbor, which it asserts belongs to the GVI.

Following discovery, Club Comanche moved for summary judgment. The GVI filed a brief in opposition to the motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. Club Comanche then moved for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction against the construction of the boardwalk. Following a hearing, the District Court granted the TRO, ordering the GVI to cease exercising dominion over lot 40A, with the proviso that the GVI could continue to build the boardwalk subject to the understanding that it would be required to remove any of the boardwalk it constructed on lot 40A if that portion of the lot was later determined to belong to Club Comanche.

The parties filed a stipulation waiving a hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction and the summary judgment motions. Thereafter, Club Comanche moved to amend its complaint to request a declaration clarifying title to the disputed area on the eastern side of the property (the Strand Lane extension), see supra note 2, which the District Court granted. Club Comanche then filed an amended complaint that included a prayer for declaratory judgment on the disputed eastern edge of the property, which the GVI answered.

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On February 22, 2001, the District Court entered an order granting Club Comanche's motion for summary judgment, and denying the GVI's cross-motion without an accompanying opinion. Judging from the language in the order, it appears that the District Court accepted Club Comanche's translation of the...

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