Judge denies motion for summary judgment in landowner’s lawsuit against government, CUC

SUPERIOR Court Judge Kenneth L. Govendo has denied the CNMI government’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by a landowner against the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. and the government.

Conrad M. Sablan sued CUC for trespass and the taking of property without just compensation. In his amended complaint, Sablan named the CNMI government as co-defendant.

Through his attorney Brien Sers Nicholas, Sablan said CUC’s construction of the Maui IV water tank and wire fences on Sablan’s properties were done without consent or authority from him and constitute trespass.

Kenneth Govendo

CUC denies that it is trespassing on the property or that Sablan was damaged by the trespass.

CUC also denies that it owes Sablan compensation or that it took Sablan’s property.

The CNMI government, for its part, denies that Sablan is entitled to recovery or relief from either the CNMI or CUC.

Sablan filed a complaint against CUC on Oct. 28, 2015. He filed an amended complaint against CUC and the CNMI government on Sept. 5, 2016.

 On Jan. 30, 2018, the CNMI government filed a motion for summary judgment after taking the depositions of Sablan and all proposed witnesses. CUC joined the  motion.

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Timmons, representing the CNMI government, said Sablan’s claims fail as a matter of law “because, at the close of discovery, there is no evidence that the CNMI authorized or participated in any way in the construction of the Maui IV water tank or fences.”

He said CUC, an autonomous public corporation, constructed the water tank and fences without any direct aid from the CNMI government.

CUC’s project was funded by the U.S. Department of Interior and CUC was given expenditure authority under the grant. Moreover, CUC independently contracted the whole process, and the CNMI government gave no authorization or consent nor did it have anything to do with the site selection, Timmons said.

 In his response, Sers Nicholas stated that the government motion has proven the plaintiff’s case because the CNMI “took” Sablan’s land.

 He added that the CNMI “proved” that CUC is part of the commonwealth and that CUC erected a structure on Sablan’s land without his consent.

Sers Nicholas said the CNMI government’s argument that “CUC adversely possessed Sablan’s land should be the most troubling to the court in light of the CNMI government’s argument that the CNMI and CUC are not the same for purposes of this case.”

It is “disturbing” that the CNMI government is making an argument on behalf of CUC in this case if CUC is not part of the CNMI, Sers Nicholas said.

If CUC and the CNMI are different then the CNMI has no standing to make the argument that CUC could adversely possess the plaintiff’s private property, Sers Nicholas added.

 He asked the court to hold the CNMI government accountable for the taking of private land for public purposes and for failing to provide just compensation for the same to the private landowners of the commonwealth.

In his order denying the government’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Govendo said the “plaintiff has put forth sufficient allegations that the CNMI government potentially authorized the construction of the Maui IV water tank and fences. Whether or not it did so is a genuine issue of material fact to be determined at a trial. Additionally, this court finds that CUC is a part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for purposes of this lawsuit.”

The judge said the CNMI “has made a habit of taking land and attempting to refuse to pay the  people of the Northern Marianas just compensation. Alternatively, the CNMI simply stalls for years, dragging its feet before paying out. The staggering amount of land comp cases in the CNMI  demonstrates the CNMI government’s laissez-faire attitude towards private land ownership rights. This new argument of adverse possession is simply another example of the CNMI, once again, trying to circumvent its duties under the CNMI Constitution and take away land from private land owners in the CNMI without providing just compensation. The CNMI government has gotten away  with these evasion tactics for a long time.”

Finally, the judge added, “Article XIII of the CNMI Constitution makes it clear that ‘[p]rivate property may not be  taken without just compensation.’ See CNMI Const. Art. XIII(b). While other jurisdictions may find differently, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is a unique jurisdiction that affords unique rights to its indigenous people. Private citizens’ land rights must be protected, particularly in the CNMI where land ownership is of special importance to the culture and people.”

Source: Marianas Variety :

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