Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Hodel, Civ. A. No. 85-1894.

Citation637 F. Supp. 1398
Decision Date30 May 1986
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 85-1894.
PartiesCORPORATION OF THE PRESIDING BISHOP OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS, Plaintiff, v. Hon. Donald P. HODEL, Secretary of the Interior, et al., Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)



Wilford Kirton, Jr., Salt Lake City, Utah, pro hac vice, and Marcus Faust, Washington, D.C., for plaintiff and proposed intervenors.

Harold Iselin, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for defendant.

Marcus Sisk, Washington, D.C., and L. Su'esu'e Lutu, Atty. Gen. of American Samoa, for intervenor American Samoa Government.


GASCH, Senior District Judge.

This case involves the Mormon Church, title to land that has been in dispute since the turn of the century, and the Fa'a Samoa — the Samoan way of thinking and doing. The land, known as "Malaeimi," is located in the territory of American Samoa. Most recently, plaintiff Corporation for the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ("the Church") was deprived of its interest in Malaeimi by decision of the High Court of American Samoa. Plaintiff appealed that decision to defendant Secretary of the Interior, who by executive order is responsible for all civil, military and judicial authority in the territory. The Secretary declined to overrule the Samoan court, however, and the Church now appeals his decision here. Because the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to raise a valid constitutional or federal statutory claim, it will grant defendants' motions to dismiss.


American Samoan law recognizes three kinds of property: "communal" land, which is held by a chief, or "matai," as custodian for his clan; "freehold" lands, which are those specifically included in court grants prior to 1900; and "individually-held" land, which an individual may hold for his own benefit if he cleared and developed virgin bush. See American Samoa ("Am. Samoa") Code § 37.0201(b); Response of American Samoan Government to Memorandum to Counsel, p. 2, question 2. Over ninety percent of land in American Samoa is held communally. See Notice of Filing by American Samoan Government, May 2, 1986. The importance of communal landholding to the Fa'a Samoa is evidenced by the fact that, since their earliest contacts with the West, Samoans have insisted on protecting the communal land system from encroachment.2 The constitution of American Samoa expressly commits the government there to a policy of preventing the transfer of land to non-indigenous persons. Rev. Const. of Am. Samoa, Art. I, § 3. By law, communally held lands cannot be alienated to persons of less than fifty percent Samoan blood. Am. Samoa Code § 37.0204(b).3 A matai has the right to "pule", or control, over land held communally for his clan.

The matai of the Puailoa family, Puailoa Vaiulu, held the land known as Malaeimi at his death in 1929. At that time, the Mormon Church had been leasing for some 23 years a 360-acre portion of Malaeimi for use as a mission.4 In 1930, two individuals named Nouata and Pasene asked the High Court of American Samoa5 to decide who should succeed Vaiulu as matai. While that case was pending, the Mormon missionaries asked Samoan authorities to determine to whom it should pay rent. Because that issue was intimately intertwined with the issue of the successor to matai, the High Court advanced the Nouata matter ahead of 25 other cases on the court's calendar. The Church was not a party to the case, however. Vaiulu's widow, Salataima, was not a party either, but was a chief witness concerning both the issues of matai and the rent payments. She testified that Vaiulu had obtained a right to the land by protecting it from takeover by a foreign corporation in a previous lawsuit, and had stated on his deathbed that he intended her to receive the rents.

An oral opinion, delivered for the court by Judge Wood, named Nouata matai, and awarded the rents to the widow:

As to the land Malaeimi it is also the unanimous decision of the court that that part of Malaeimi that is leased to the Mormon Missionaries is the property of the widow of Puailoa and that she should have during her lifetime the rents. While she is living it is suggested that she shall make a written statement signed by two witnesses, who she wants this money to go to after her death if the lease is still running....
As to the other lands of Puailoa the court decides they should be held by Puailoa Nouata as the matai of the Puailoa family for the benefit of the whole family.

Nouata v. Pasene, L.T. No. 18-1930 (H.C. L.T. 1931), p. 20, Deft. Hodel's Exh. B ("Nouata I"). The court reached this conclusion even though there were no pleadings on the rent issue and no testimony pertaining to it, other than that of the widow.

In 1953, after a change in Samoan law made it possible to alienate noncommunal lands to non-Samoans, the widow sold to the Church some 300 acres of the land that it had previously leased. The Church paid $30,000.00 and built, in addition to church facilities, a school and a welfare plantation. The school buildings were eventually transferred to the American Samoan Government for use as a community college.

The Puailoa family was unhappy with Judge Wood's decision, and almost immediately after it was handed down, wrote the governor of American Samoa, arguing that the court had improperly considered the widow's right to the property. The confusion over the status of the land was again evidenced when the Church asked Samoan authorities to approve the 1953 sale, at which time the president of the Church's Samoan Mission acknowledged a suit might be necessary to quiet title to the property. See Governor's Report Regarding Purchase, April 21, 1952, Pltf's. Opp. to ASG Motion to Dismiss, Exh. 5.

In 1978, matai Tavete M. Puailoa officially petitioned the High Court to set aside Nouata I. Nouata v. Pasene, L.T. No. 18-1930 (H.C. L.T., Feb. 20, 1979), Deft. Hodel's Exh. C ("Nouata II"). The petition was denied by the trial court on the theory that the family had slept on its rights for 47 years. Id. at 22. On appeal, the appellate division held the petition was timely, but denied it on the merits. Writing for the court and sitting by designation of the Secretary of the Interior, Judge Anthony Kennedy of the Ninth Circuit found the 1931 judgment valid. Nouata v. Pasene, Ap. No. 007-79 (H.C. A.D., July 11, 1980), p. 9, Deft. Hodel's Exh. C ("Nouata II"). He stated that Tavete, as successor in interest to a party to Nouata I, was bound by the 1931 holding, and that Nouata I had properly reached the issue of the rent payments because that subject was intimately related to the issue of the matai successorship. Id. at 14. Since it was understood by all parties to Nouata I that both issues would be resolved simultaneously, the 1931 decision was not void "to the extent that it bears upon the status of the land Malaeimi." Id. at 17. However, he added, "The Court intimates no views as to the interpretation of the 1931 decision or its bearing on the ultimate question of title, only that it is valid as to these parties." Id. at 20.

Despite this adverse ruling, members of the Puailoa family entered onto the property and began farming it. To prevent this, the Church brought a trespass action in 1979. Reid v. Tavete, etc., L.T. Nos. 007-79 and 041-79 (H.C. L.T. April 19, 1982), Deft. Hodel's Exh. D ("Reid I"). As a defense, the Puailoa family members asserted the 1953 deed conveying the land to the Church was void because the land was communal property and could not be alienated by the widow individually. The trial court found for defendants and declared plaintiff's deed void, for two reasons. First, the Court found Malaeimi could not be freehold land since it nowhere appears on the Record of Court Grants that was made in 1900. By statutory definition, only lands in this record could be freehold. See Am. Samoa Code § 37.0201(b). Second, the Court reviewed numerous records of judicial decisions and trials early in this century concerning the extent of the Puailoa holdings, and found several references to Malaeimi as communal land of the family. The court interpreted the 1931 Nouata I decision as granting the widow a life estate in the rents, but not freehold title to the land. As it was communal land, the court concluded, she could not convey it to the Church. In the alternative, the court rejected the Church's adverse possession claim, stating that the Church had not met the statutorily required thirty-year occupancy requirement.6 The Reid I court did not consider itself bound by Judge Kennedy's opinion in Nouata II, because that opinion expressly stated that it did not bear on the ultimate question of title to Malaeimi.

The core holding of Reid I was affirmed on appeal,7 with the appeals panel rejecting the Church's argument that res judicata barred the trial court from depriving it of title. Reid v. Puailoa, Ap. No. 014-82, etc. (H.C. A.D. Mar. 30, 1983) (per curiam), Deft. Hodel's Exh. E ("Reid II"). The Church based its res judicata theory on the Nouata cases. However, the appeals court noted that the 1931 Nouata I opinion, delivered orally by Judge Wood, was ambiguous as to the issue of whether Malaeimi was communal property. It further held the Reid trial court's interpretation of the 1931 opinion was not clearly erroneous in finding, on the basis of evidence extrinsic to the Nouata cases, that the land was communal. The appeals court concluded Nouata II "merely determined the propriety of the trial court's denial of a motion for a new trial," and therefore could not constitute res judicata on the issue of title to Malaeimi. Id.

The Reid appeals court also rejected the Church's alternative argument based on adverse possession because the Church could not establish that it had been in possession of the property for the statutorily-required period. In a footnote, ...

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