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Haleck attorney seeks to deny Interior Secretary’s move to dismiss lawsuit

Through their attorney, the Haleck family of American Samoa has asked the federal court in Washington D.C. to deny the request by U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar to dismiss the Haleck lawsuit against Salazar.

The lawsuit filed this year stems from the long standing dispute between the family and ASG regarding the 23.25 acres, or Naumati 23 Acres of land in the Ottoville Lowland Forest in the territory.

Representing Salazar, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Lo sought the dismissal citing, among other things “lack of matter jurisdiction” and “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted”. Salazar is being sued in his official and individual capacity as DOI Secretary.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Emmet T. Flood recently opposed the dismissal motion, saying that the Halecks are entitled to the U.S. Constitution’s protections, in particular its Fifth Amendment protections for property owners. 

As Secretary of the Interior, the plaintiff says the defendant is responsible for the protection of U.S. Constitutional rights in the territory and he “has plenary authority to address the longstanding and continuing deprivation of property rights” alleged in this case.

Flood pointed out that his clients have owned their land for over 30 years and have spent the last 20 years “seeking to realize its value, either through development or sale to the American Samoa Government” who “wishes to preserve the Halecks’ property in its natural state as a kind of parkland or rainforest.”

“For that reason, officials of the ASG executive and judicial branches have for 20 years frustrated the Halecks at every turn,” said Flood.

In order to preserve this private property in its undeveloped state, the ASG executive has denied the Halecks a fair administrative process, refusing the Halecks the permits necessary to develop their land through pretextual denials and a development moratorium, the plaintiffs argued.

“Alternating with these ad hoc barriers to development, the ASG executive has refused to purchase the land, proposing at various times to buy the land, but never following through,” it says.

Flood contends that the highest judicial officer in American Samoa has now declared that the Halecks do not own the land at all— referring to a local court ruling more than two years ago.

“That declaration has in fact inhibited, and must be expected to continue to inhibit, the United States Government from authorizing funds for purchase of the land,” he said.

“The effect is a tacit agreement among two of the ASG’s three branches to the effect that the Halecks do not own the land and can neither develop it nor sell it,” said Flood.

After Salazar last year declined to exercise his plenary power to remedy injustice against the Haleck family, the plaintiffs have been left with no choice but to bring the present action, seeking the federal court’s assistance in securing their constitutional rights, he said.

In response, the Secretary answered that the Halecks are not entitled to the assistance of the federal court at this time in securing their constitutional rights.

“Instead, the Secretary throws up every imaginable obstacle to relief, contending that the Halecks’ action is premature, unripe, not-exhausted, and anything else that comes to hand; and he asserts that the Halecks must return to American Samoa and resume efforts to obtain relief through the very avenues the ASG has employed to stymie them for the last 20 years,” Flood argued.

“The Secretary’s efforts to dismiss the case are not only meritless, but — in view of the 20 years of deprivation already suffered — they amount to an abdication of the Secretary’s obligation to secure constitutional rights in American Samoa,” he said. 

As the Secretary cannot fail to recognize, such a course would condemn the Halecks to years of additional administrative and/or judicial process — with no fair prospect of genuine relief, the said.

“What non-futile process have the Halecks failed to pursue in American Samoa which, if pursued, would assure the Halecks of an entitlement to a hearing in this Court? The Secretary does not say,” he said. “How can the Halecks expect a full, fair, and final administrative resolution of their development plans from the very authorities who have slow-walked and bait and-switched them for 20 years? The Secretary does not say.”

“Why must the Halecks pursue new and/or additional judicial relief in the High Court of [American] Samoa as a precondition for a hearing by this Court, when the Chief Justice of the High Court has repeatedly declared that the Halecks do not own the land at all? Again, the Secretary does not say,” he said.