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Joint status report filed in DC federal court in Haleck-ASG dispute

Attorneys for the Haleck family and Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell have filed a joint status report with the federal court in Washington D.C., with the latest update — that the High Court of American Samoa last month denied Avamua Dave Haleck’s motion for a new trial over the local court’s decision in May — granting the ASG permanent injunction against Avamua.


The local legal battle between ASG and Avamua is a long standing one over Haleck- owned land called Naumati in Ottoville, which is considered lowland forest. It is also the subject of a Haleck family lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior pending in the federal court in Washington D.C.


Earlier this year in March, the federal court ordered the case be “stayed” pending further order of the federal court, and that all parties involved “shall submit a joint status report summarizing the current status of the underlying dispute” in the High Court of American Samoa.


According to the July 29 joint status report, the High Court held a hearing on June 11 on Avamua’s motion for a new trial over the May 1st decision, which granted ASG permanent injunction against Avamua.


The High Court denied Haleck’s motion for a new trial through an order issued on July 22.


“Plaintiffs and Defendant will next file a status report in this case on September 30, 2013, along with a joint recommendation for further proceedings, including whether the stay should be lifted or remain in place,” says the status report.


This was also included in a separate submission of the High Court's order on July 22. which was signed by Chief Justice Michael Kruse and Associate Judge Mamea Sala Jr.


In the order, the Court recalled the case began in 2008 when ASG filed for an injunctive relief  to stop defendant Avamua and other persons of interests (defendants) from developing the remainder of the Tafuna plain’s lowland rainforest (Rainforest).


Trial on the merits was finally held in January 2013 “after which we found, among other things, that the Rainforest was indeed an undeveloped rainforest with primal forest growth” and Avamua’s claim to an individually owned title of the land was “entirely baseless in fact and in law.”


“Accordingly, we grant ASG’s petition for permanent injunction,” the judges said, noting the defendants sought a new trial pertaining to the provisions of local law.


According to the judges, Avamua argued the court effected a judicial taking of the Rainforest and thereby deprived the defendants of ownership of their land without due process of law.


But as an argument, said the judges, the submission is unsound.


“It merely asserts a conclusion that is grounded on a falsehood; via, that the Rainforest has been settled and continuously occupied,” the judges said. “It is an assertion which necessarily demands of this court to look the other way and thereby avoid having to deal with a logical contradiction.”


In order to have a cognizable claim for deprivation of due process, one must first have a property interest in the government action complained of, the decision said. It also states Haleck’s argument necessarily presupposes the defendants have an individualized proprietary interest in the Rainforest.


“We found that they do not,” said the judges.


The decision also states Haleck protests not having notice the court would raise the issue of individually-owned Rainforest. However, it points out the issue was raised first by the defendant’s predecessor-in-interest at the outset — when the astonishing claim to individual ownership of virgin bush was initially asserted.


“But as we earlier noted ‘[a] proposition that rainforest land can be individually-owned is plainly nonsense; the two are logical contradictions’,” the judges said.


“Along with every other land claimant in this jurisdiction, defendants are on notice that in order to claim ownership to virgin bush land, a Samoan must first clear, cultivate, and continuously occupy the land,” the judges pointed out.


In addition, defendants’ predecessor-in-interest would have had actual notice of the law in this territory, having previously been a party in Haleck v. Tuia (Land and Title case), where the subject matter of dispute involved Haleck’s claim to an individually-owned title to a substantial acreage of the lowland forest, cleared and cultivated, and lying next to the Rainforest, the decision states.


In that case, the court concluded, “[w]hen an individual goes upon virgin bush land, clears it, develops plantation... the property becomes the individually owned land of the developer, and he is entitled to have the land registered as his individually owned property. Having had notice, the parties before us presented evidence at trial regarding the issue of whether the Rainforest was ever substantially cleared or continuously occupied,” the judges said. “On the evidence, we found that the Rainforest had not. Thus the registration of the Rainforest was not proper and should be disregarded.”


As to the remaining arguments raised in the defendants’ motion, the judges said the court finds they are meritless and relies on its prior written orders on the matters regarding individually owned tittles.


“There being no manifest error of law or mistake of fact shown as would warrant a retrial of the issues, the motion for new trial must, therefore, be denied,” the judges concluded.