Legislation Proposes Mandatory Mediation in Kuleana Land Disputes

Feb 25, 2019

Pilaa Beach fronts the 700-acre oceanfront estate owned by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In an attempt to clear title to his land, he filed quiet title lawsuits with hundreds of descendants of kuleana landowners. He later withdrew the lawsuits after public criticism. The incident got the attention of the Hawaii State Legislature.
Credit Kauai Surf Co.

Remember when Mark Zuckerberg caused public outcry on Kauaʻi after seeking land titles from kuleana property owners? Yeah, Hawaiʻi lawmakers haven’t forgotten either. A bill before the State Legislature aims to change the way these property disputes are resolved. 

Senate Bill 1495 may make it harder for new landowners to clear title and establish ownership of their little piece of paradise. They commonly establish clear title by filing quiet title lawsuits, and thus “quiet” any challenges to the property. Healani Sonoda-Pale, a proponent of the bill, says this has particularly impacted native Hawaiian descendants known as “kuleana land owners.”

“Kuleana land owners are landowners who have lived on their lands for at least 170 years. They’ve occupied, owned it, cultivated it, you know, raised their families on their lands,” says Sonoda-Pale.

Or at least some of them have. No one keeps good numbers. Still, there’s support for legislation to protect them.

“This bill is important because it levels the legal playing field for kuleana land owners,” says Sonoda-Pale.

The measure would require mediation in these land disputes as opposed to often-costly litigation that many kuleana landowners can’t afford.

“Mediation will actually force this big landowner to come face-to-face with these families,” says Sonoda-Pale.

But Mike Gibson, an attorney with Ashford and Wriston who represents clients in quiet title cases, says mediation is already an option.

“We’re not opposed to mediation. Mandatory mediation probably is not likely to work,” says Gibson, “It’s going to make it more expensive to go through these cases. It could also take longer without really too much benefit.”

Gibson says in 40 years working on quiet title cases, none of his cases have been resolved through mediation. He says, the bigger issue is a public misconception that every quiet title case involves a billionaire attempting to make a land grab.

“Most of my cases involve families,” says Gibson, “And it’s difficult because the family has owned the property jointly for so long, some people have lived on the property, others haven’t been able to live on the property.”

Some people have paid property taxes, others haven’t. He says these are complicated cases.

“But they’re not usually some rich corporation or individual trying to kick a long-time Hawaiian family off of the property,” says Gibson, “It’s much more likely to be an inter-family fight.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, eventually withdrew his quiet title lawsuit after the protest on Kauaʻi. But the issue remains.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up S.B. 1495 tomorrow morning.