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Split decision in ASG versus Yacht Club legal battle

fili@samoanews.com

The Appellate Division of the High Court has granted in part and denied in part the American Samoa Government’s motion to dismiss Pago Pago Yacht Club’s motion for reconsideration, in the ongoing legal battle over the lease of government land at Utulei Beach Park.

The 9-page appellate decision dated June 1 was signed by associate justices Lyle L. Richmond and John Ward II; acting associate justice Elvis Patea and associate judges Suapaia Pereira and Fa’amausili Pomele. ASG is represented by Assistant Attorney General Jay Sayles while Mark Ude represents the Yacht Club.

BACKGROUND

The Trial Division ruled in January in favor of ASG, saying that PPYC is a holdover tenant. Later in the month, PPYC filed a one-page “motion for reconsideration” which consisted of two paragraphs. Thereafter the trial division — after a hearing — denied the request on the grounds that PPYC  had “failed to comply with the particularity requirement” of local court regulations.

According to the trial court, motions for new trial or reconsideration require the moving party to show that an error of the court affected substantial rights, or that recently uncovered facts would change the court’s ruling. Additionally, such a motion is required “to be particularized.”

On Mar. 2, PPYC filed a “Notice of Appeal” in this matter, but the filing of the record on appeal has yet to be noticed by the Clerk of Courts, according to the appellate division, who also noted that on Apr. 4, ASG filed two motions: the first seeks to dismiss due to lack of subject jurisdiction and the second is a motion to stay appeal pending ASG’s motion to dismiss appeal.

REVIEW

The appellate division addressed in detail ASG’s first motion in which ASG asserts that the appellate division lacks jurisdiction over PPYC’s appeal and contends that PPYC’s ‘motion for reconsideration’ failed to comply with the “particularity requirement” and such failure resulted in the trial division rejecting the motion.

Citing a previous appellate case, the judges say that: “In the judicial appeals context, de novo review acknowledges an appellate court owes no formal adherence or deference to the reasoning or conclusions of law a lower court proffers; indeed, de novo review allows the appellate court to entertain and determine an issue of law anew.”

(De novo standard of review describes a type of legal appeal where the appeals court looks at the case anew, as if an earlier trial had never occurred. Under de novo review, the case is effectively re-tried in the appellate forum.)

DISCUSSION

In the instant matter, the appellate judges said, “our review is limited only to a ‘de novo’ determination of whether or not PPYC’s two-paragraph motion is particularized enough to unlock our jurisdiction to hear the same”.

“We review both grounds of PPYC’s ‘Motion for Reconsideration’ on its face. For the sake of clarity, we consider PPYC’s ‘Motion for Reconsideration’ a motion for new trial or amended judgement,” the judges point out.

According to the judges, “we hold PPYC’s first ground unparticularized and subject to dismissal. Conversely, we hold PPYC’s second ground sufficiently particularized and within our jurisdiction to hear.”

They also explained that a particularized motion for new trial should reasonably specify an appellant’s grounds for new trial, amendment of the lower court’s judgement, and/or appeal.

For judicial economy, the appellate division requires a particularized motion for new trial: so that the lower court can identify and cure its own errors, avoiding the cost, time and need for an appeal; and so that provided the action is appealed, the appellate process moves in a timely manner and the grounds for appeal are stated with clarity and preserved.

“Represented by an experienced, local attorney in constructive knowledge of this decades-old jurisdictional requirement, PPYC states its first ground for new trial thusly, ‘Basis for this motion is the error by the court in introducing evidence after the trial without plaintiff having benefit to address’,” the appellate judges noted.

“Noticeably, PPYC does not explain what new evidence the lower court introduced, nor what precisely PPYC would now argue had it the benefit to address the allegedly new evidence,” the judges point out.

PPYC proceeds with a second sentence: “The court introduced evidence of a disproval, without the exhibit being provided by defendant, whose burden it fell upon to disprove the lease [sic].”

According to the judges, the second sentence neither identifies the “disproval”, nor acknowledges how this “error” could affect PPYC’s substantial rights if the lower court granted a new trial. 

“This attorney-drafted motion fails to identify much of anything,” the judges state.

Upon reviewing the full language of PPYC’s first ground for new trial or amended judgement, they write “we are unable, even under the most liberal reading, to conclude that PPYC’s attorney-drafted motion reasonably specifies the alleged Trial Division error,” the judge said. “On its face, the two sentences lack discernible, sensible, or valid legal rhetoric.”

Therefore, “ASG’s motion to dismiss is granted in part; for failing to particularize its first ground for new trial, PPYC is precluded from raising the same on appeal,” they said.

“PPYC’s second ground, however, is particularized enough and concerns a different issue: bifurcation.” (Bifurcation here refers to the splitting of issues, or dividing into parts.)

PPYC argues the lower court ‘previously bifuracted this matter [and] committed clear error to deny plaintiff damages [when] the lower court’s own order precluded the testimony of damages until the issue of the existence of a lease was first decided’.”

“Here, we can discern PPYC’s argument: the lower court prohibited PPYC from addressing or raising damages until after the lower court had decided the underlying viability of the lease at issue; however, the lower court’s Opinion and Order concurrently rules on the lease’s viability and denied PPYC damages of any kind, without giving PPYC an opportunity to present on the latter bifurcated issue,” the judges say.

“Whether such a lower court bifurcation order exists or will result in reversal or remand is an entirely different matter— to be briefed and determined on appeal; here, on the fact of the articulated second ground, PPYC ‘minimally’ articulates enough to preserve its second ground for appeal,” the judges note.

ORDER

“...we grant in part and deny in part ASG’s Motion to Dismiss Appeal. Accordingly, ASG’s second motion, for a stay, is rendered moot,” the judges ordered.

“Moreover, the only matter to be briefed by the parties and to be heard on appeal is the Trial Division’s ruling on the bifurcation.”



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