Sotomura v. County of Hawaii, Civ. No. 75-0067.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Hawaii)
Citation402 F. Supp. 95
Docket NumberCiv. No. 75-0067.
PartiesJoseph Yuki SOTOMURA and Grace Fumiye Sotomura, Plaintiffs, v. COUNTY OF HAWAII et al., Defendants.
Decision Date19 September 1975

402 F. Supp. 95

Joseph Yuki SOTOMURA and Grace Fumiye Sotomura, Plaintiffs,
COUNTY OF HAWAII et al., Defendants.

Civ. No. 75-0067.

United States District Court, D. Hawaii.

September 19, 1975.

402 F. Supp. 96

Clinton Ashford, Douglas MacDougal, Ashford & Wriston, Honolulu, Hawaii, for plaintiffs.

Ronald Y. Amemiya, Atty. Gen., Russell Fukumoto, Deputy Atty. Gen., Honolulu, Hawaii, Clifford H. F. Lum, Corp. Counsel, Katsuya Yamada, Deputy Corp. Counsel, County of Hawaii, Hilo, Hawaii, for County of Hawaii, Matayoshi,

402 F. Supp. 97
Mayor of the County of Hawaii, Lum, Corp. Counsel of Hawaii


WONG, District Judge.

Statement of Facts

On March 5, 1975, plaintiffs filed this action for declaratory and injunctive relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 28 U. S.C. § 2201, and 28 U.S.C. § 2283, based on alleged violations of their Fifth, Seventh, and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights1 stemming from the Hawaii Supreme Court's "re-location" of their property's seaward boundary in County of Hawaii v. Sotomura, 55 Haw. 176, 517 P.2d 57 (1973) (hereinafter referred to as the "Sotomura" decision). Named as defendants in this action are The County of Hawaii and its Mayor and Corporation Counsel (hereinafter "County defendants"), the Governor of Hawaii, the Attorney General, and the Chairman and Members of the State Board of Land and Natural Resources (hereinafter "State defendants").2 Jurisdiction in this action is based upon 28 U.S.C. § 1343 and 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

On April 16, 1975, State defendants filed a motion to dismiss. County defendants subsequently filed their motion to dismiss on June 23, 1975. After listening to argument by all counsel at the hearing on these motions, this court orally denied defendants' respective motions to dismiss. This decision enlarges upon that oral decision rendered by this court on August 1, 1975.

The background facts for this action are undisputed and are reported at 55 Haw. 176, 517 P.2d 57 (1973). The subsequent history of the Sotomura case is footnoted below.3

402 F. Supp. 98

Legal Issues Raised

In their respective motions to dismiss, defendants have raised the following arguments:4

1. That the State court proceedings which have been completed are res judicata and collateral attacks upon those proceedings should not be permitted in this subsequent federal action.
2. That this action is in substance an action against the State of Hawaii and the State has not waived its sovereign immunity in this case.
3. That there is no subject matter jurisdiction because there has been no showing that the State and County officers have acted "under color of state law," as is required for any action brought under Section 1983.
4. That any Section 1983 action brought against a state by its own citizens is barred under the Eleventh Amendment.
5. That "for reasons of comity" this court should decline to review the matters raised in plaintiffs' complaint by the doctrine of abstention since the law of real property is, under our Constitution, left to the individual states to develop and administer.
6. That the applicable statute of limitations for this Section 1983 action has lapsed.
7. That no substantial federal question has been raised.

Res Judicata

Defendants' cases—See, e. g., Ellis v. Crockett, 51 Haw. 45, 451 P.2d 814 (1969)—accurately state the principle of res judicata as being applicable where the parties in a prior suit have litigated or properly could have litigated the issues raised in a subsequent action. Defendants have broadly asserted that the Circuit Court's and Supreme Court's judgments in the Sotomura case are res judicata in this action. This court feels, however, that defendants have not properly addressed themselves to the key question of whether the constitutional issues raised in plaintiffs' complaint were litigated or could have been litigated in either the Circuit Court or the Supreme Court.

First, in taking plaintiffs' procedural due process claim under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, this court recognizes that plaintiffs were well aware that the controlling issue in their appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court was the applicability of the Ashford case.5 Therefore, at first glance, it would appear that plaintiffs have had their day in court on the applicability of Ashford, at least as it specifically relates to the question of whether the debris line or the limu line should be deemed controlling. Moreover, if one views the Supreme Court's treatment of Ashford in Sotomura as merely redefining or elaborating upon what was meant in Ashford, then, certainly, the fact that plaintiffs were not given an opportunity to present argument and evidence against

402 F. Supp. 99
fixing the seaward boundary at the vegetation line becomes less significant

However, this court is of the opinion that the Ashford case should be limited to its facts. In Ashford, the Supreme Court was called upon to define and locate ma ke kai, a term which has been used to describe the seaward boundary of property which petitioners sought to register with the Land Court. After searching to determine what was the real property law in existence when the royal patents for petitioners' property were issued in 1866 by King Kamehameha V, the court found that ma ke kai is "along the upper reaches of the wash of waves, usually evidenced by the edge of vegetation or by the line of debris left by the wash of waves." 50 Haw. at 315, 440 P.2d at 77. Ashford did not deal with the question of whether these standards for determining ma ke kai could be applied retroactively to previously registered Land Court property. In the Land Court decree for plaintiffs' property, the seaward boundary is not described as along the high water mark but is specifically located by metes and bounds. 55 Haw. at 188, 517 P.2d 57. Furthermore, Ashford did not deal with the situation where there was both a debris line and a vegetation line, in addition to a limu line. Noticeably absent in the Sotomura opinion is any evidence of, or any specific reference to, the "tradition, custom, and usage in old Hawaii" for fixing the seaward boundary at the limu line, the debris line, or the vegetation line where all three lines were present on a subject property. The record also indicates that throughout the State court proceedings, neither the State nor the County ever contended that the vegetation line was controlling on the boundary question. Given all of these factors, this court believes plaintiffs have made a prima facie showing that the Hawaii Supreme Court's action in formulating its new "presumption of law"6 regarding the vegetation line, without ever affording the parties an opportunity to contest this new finding of law by the presentation of argument and evidence upon rehearing, transgressed the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Brinkerhoff-Faris Co. v. Hill, 281 U.S. 673, 677-81, 50 S.Ct. 451, 74 L.Ed. 1107 (1930).

Next, turning to plaintiffs' substantive due process claim under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, this court finds two related issues to be, first, whether the State court's failure to give res judicata effect to the previous Land Court decree violated plaintiffs' constitutional rights, and, second, whether the State court's retroactive application of the Ashford standards to previously registered Land Court property was a radical departure from established state law so as to constitute a taking of private property without just compensation. On these issues, defendants argue that no person has a "vested right" in a court decision, and that the mere fact that a state court reversed a former decision to the prejudice of a party does not take away his property without due process of law. Carolina-Virginia Racing Assn. v. Cahoon, 214 F.2d 830, 832 (4th Cir. 1954); Cooper v. Comm. of Internal Revenue, 197 F.2d 951, 953 (4th Cir. 1952); Sunray Oil Co. v. Comm. of Internal Revenue, 147 F.2d 962, 963 (10th Cir. 1945); Baumann v. Smrha, 145 F.Supp. 617 (D. Kansas 1956), aff'd 352 U.S. 863, 77 S. Ct. 96, 1 L.Ed.2d 73 (1956). This court

402 F. Supp. 100
finds the cases relied upon in support of this argument to be inapposite in the case at bar. Plaintiffs' asserted property rights are not founded upon the former general decisional law of the State but upon the Land Court decree for plaintiffs' property. The Land Court's proceedings are in rem against the land and its decree operate "directly on the land" in vesting and establishing title thereto. Section 501-1, H.R.S. These decrees are "conclusive upon and against all persons, including the State." Section 501-71, H.R.S.7 Under Ashford, property rights are determined by the law in existence at the time such rights are vested. Id. at 317, 440 P.2d 76. In this case, plaintiffs' property rights vested as of the date and time noted on plaintiffs' decree of registration. See Section 501-74, H.R.S

The binding force of a Land Court decree was recognized by the Ninth Circuit in its en banc decision in United States v. Fullard-Leo, 156 F.2d 756 (9th Cir. 1946). In that case the United States filed a petition in this court to quiet title to and for a writ of possession in the Island of Palmyra. The appellees answered, and relying upon a 1912 Hawaii Land Court decree which registered title in their predecessor in interest, prayed for judgment "settling and quieting title to said Palmyra . . . in these respondents and determining and declaring that said decree of the Land Court of the Territory of Hawaii was and is a binding decree." 156 F.2d at 760. In affirming judgment for appellees, the court found that the Attorney General of the Territory had been cited in the original registration proceedings and had disclaimed any interest in the island. Because full authority with respect to the administration, management, and disposition of Hawaii's public lands had been committed to the Territory by Congress by the terms of Sections 91 and 73...

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