Court rules Afoa titleholder has authority over Asila land
The Lands and Titles Court has ruled that because the Lutu title is vacant, the Afoa titleholder has authority to control certain communal land known as Asila in Fagatogo. The land has been at the center of a dispute before the court for over five years. The order issued last week was signed by Associate Justice Lyle L Richmond and Associate Judge Mamea Sala Jr.
According to the 26 page order, this matter is in connection with the move by Salote Schuster, Taesali Sam Matagi, Seufagafaga Vea Tauaese and Ruth Matagi Tofiga to evict the Pritchard family from a building on Asila. The building houses the Fashion Boat Store.
Asila land also has a guesthouse on it.
The plaintiffs sought to recover compensatory and punitive damages from the Pritchard’s to repair damage to the premises from their occupancy of the land Asila. In response Lenita Pritchard filed a third-party complaint in essence of Afoa Lutu responsible to the plaintiffs.
Afoa responded to the third party complaint and cross-claimed against the plaintiffs to evict them from the land and to recover compensatory and punitive damages for their occupancy and use of Asila and to enjoin them from interfering with the Afoa family’s occupancy and use of the land in question.
A year later after the case was filed, a trial was carried out in this matter against defendants Afoa Lutu and Fashion Boat. Billie G. Leota moved to allow the Fashion Boat to stand aloof until the court resolved the controversy between the Lutu and Afoa families.
POSSESSION AND CONTROL OF THE LAND ASILA
According to the order, the land titles court must resolve two basic issues in order to deal with remedies at issue in this action:
(1) which family owns the communal land Asila; and
(2) who presently controls the occupancy and use of the land Asila.
During the trial the parties presented extensive evidence addressing issues on the Lutu family and Afoa family histories and interactions. “Clearly, the two families are historically connected and the leaders and other family members engaged in significant competitive interplay over the years.
“Both Lutu and Afoa titles were established in American Samoa long before the United States began formally administering the territory in the 1900s,” says the order.
The court noted that the Afoa and Lutu families have continuously remained associated with each other. “The Afoa family and Lutu family also combined with the Taesali family and the Lutu family into a larger family consisting of the Afoa, Lutu,Taesali and Tupua families.”
The court explained that the Sa’o titles of the Afoa, Lutu and Tupua are high chief titles, and the Sa’o title of the Taesali family is a Talking Chief title. It pointed out that the sequential differences of the first titleholders coupled with substantial gaps between tenures of the Afoa and Lutu titleholders over the years, and perhaps the natural instinct of human nature to acquire possess and preserve rightful authority, took greater hold on succeeding Afoa and Lutu titleholders over time, which likely and significantly contribute to the present stance of Salote and Afoa.
According to the order, Salote asserts that the Lutu titleholder has the sole sa’o authority over Asila, while Afoa contends that the Afoa titleholder has that authority in the absence of a Lutu titleholder.
The Lutu title has been vacant since the passing of Lutu Tenari S Lutu in 2005 and the Afoa title was bestowed upon the current Afoa L Su’esu’e Lutu in 1989.
According to the order, the events involving the Lutu and Afoa titleholders’ control over matters concerning the land Asila since the initial official registration of both the Lutu and Afoa titles in 1906 supports Salote and Afoa’s claims of which title presently controls the occupancy and use of Asila.
“Since the advent of matai registration in American Samoa, the Lutu family has been in possession of the land Asila. Lutu family members have actually lived at times in the guesthouse on the land. “However both the Lutu and Afoa families have conducted family functions, such as title investitures, weddings and funerals on the premises,” says the order.
The order further states that the Lutu family has had physical possession of the land including the guesthouse, before 1900 and certainly since then to date.
To whit: The court explained that based on the extensive and complex evidence presented during the trial, the court states its ultimate decision that because the Lutu title is vacant, the Afoa titleholder has the pule over Asila land.
The land Asila, which is at the center of the dispute in this action, is the Afoa, Lutu, Taesali and Tupua family's communal land.
The Lutu family possesses the land Asila at issue pursuant to a mutual agreement within the Afoa, Lutu, Taesali and Tupua family well before 1900 to divide immediate occupancy and use of the larger’s family’s communal land among the four subfamilies.
The incumbent holder of the Lutu title controls the Lutu family possession of the land Asila in matters of immediate concern to the Lutu family members. However because the Lutu title is vacant the incumbent Afoa title exercises that control.
“Afoa as the sa’o of the Lutu family during the present vacancy of Lutu title, has the authority to handle these matters."
“Afoa’s authority extends to the issue in this action pertaining to the occupancy and use of the land Asila. The holders of the Afoa, Lutu, Taesali and Tupua titles jointly control the land Asila at issue in matters of principal concern to the larger Afoa, Lutu, Taesali and Tupua family”.
The order further states that the Pritchard building is a permanent improvement on and an integral part of the land Asila communally owned by Afoa, Lutu, Taesali and Tupua family.
“Afoa acquired the Pritchard’s building from Lenita in his name as the Lutu family sa’o presently in authority over the land Asila, not as this building's owner individually.
“Fashion’s house’s occupancy and use of the Pritchard’s building on the land Asila is presently subject to Afoa’s sa’o authority, including but not limited to control over continuing occupancy, use, rentals and other management matters pertaining to that building, until the vacancy in the Lutu title is filled.
“Because Fashion house no longer has any title or other real property interest in the Pritchard building and continues in possession of the building presently subject to Afoa’s control” says the order. The court also dismissed Fashion Boat from this action.