[12 FSM Intrm. 187]
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[12 FSM Intrm. 188]
the state court would have if it were hearing the case. It may exercise whatever powers the state court could have if the case been before that court. Enlet v. Bruton, 12 FSM Intrm. 187, 189 (Chk. 2003).
[12 FSM Intrm. 189]
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MARTIN G. YINUG, Associate Justice:
This comes before the court on the Defendantsí Brief in Support of Independent Action for Relief from Judgments, filed by Iromy K. Bruton and Larry Bruton (the Brutons) on December 24, 2001; Plaintiffís Response to the Defendantsí Brief in Support of Independent Action for Relief from Judgments, filed by Ben Enlet on January 14, 2002; Defendantsí Reply Brief in Support of Independent Action for Relief from Judgments, filed by the Brutons on February 3, 2003; Plaintiffís Surreply Brief to Defendantsí Reply, filed by Enlet on March 17, 2003; and Defendantsí Reply to Plaintiffís Surreply, filed by the Brutons on April 7, 2003.
Also before the court is the Defendantsí Pretrial Motion, filed by the Brutons on August 13, 2003. Enletís response was untimely filed on October 14, 2003. No other pretrial motions were filed.
I. Briefs Concerning Independent Actions for Relief from Judgments
Civil Action No. 2001-1014, Iromy K. Bruton and Larry Bruton, Plaintiffs, v. Iochy Ngusun, Ben Enlet, Kinemary Nairo, Eichi Misasy, and Nasiko Jona, for themselves and for the Pwee Clan of Polle Municipality, Defendants, was consolidated with this case on June 21, 2001. That case was an independent action by the Brutons seeking relief from certain state court judgments. Iochy Ngusun was dismissed as a party by operation of an order nisi entered July 13, 2003. By court order of September 24, 2001, the court sought briefing on whether certain state court judgments could or should be set aside. The briefing process was lengthy because the parties requested a stay of proceedings while settlement possibilities were explored. The courtís principal concern in seeking briefing was whether it had the authority to entertain an independent action for relief from a state court judgment and the power to grant such relief if the law and the facts warranted it.
This consolidated case is before the FSM Supreme Court trial division under its diversity jurisdiction) because of the partiesí diverse citizenship. FSM Const. art. XI, ß 6(b). Larry Bruton is a foreign citizen and all other parties are citizens of Chuuk. In diversity cases, state law usually provides the rules of decision. See, e.g., Phoenix of Micronesia, Inc. v. Mauricio, 9 FSM Intrm. 155, 158 (App. 1999); Youngstrom v. Youngstrom, 5 FSM Intrm. 335, 337 (Pon. 1992). This is especially true in real property cases. This consolidated trespass case concerns who among the parties has a better claim to possession of the tidelands Meseinom and Nepiachechen.
In a diversity case, the FSM Supreme Court trial division has no greater and no lesser power than the state court would have if it were hearing the case. It may exercise whatever powers the state court could have if the case been before that court. Chuuk trial courts have jurisdiction to set aside
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judgments either by a Rule 60 relief from judgment motion or by an independent action in equity.1 Election Commissioner v. Petewon, 6 FSM Intrm. 491, 499, 1 CSR 5, 11 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994). Cf. Union Indus. Co. v. Santos, 7 FSM Intrm. 242, 245 (Pon. 1995). The Chuuk State Supreme Court trial division has recently exercised this power in a proceeding involving some of the same parties as this case and involving related transactions and lands. See Pastor v. Ngusun, 11 FSM Intrm. 281, 285-86 (Chk. S. Ct. Tr. 2002) (judgment vacated for nonjoinder of necessary or indispensable parties and when it affected persons who had never been parties; judgment entered against a party without notice or an opportunity to be heard is void and subject to direct or collateral attack; relief also granted under Chuuk Civil Rule 60(b)(6)). The FSM Supreme Court trial division therefore also has the power in a proper case to entertain an independent action for relief from a state court judgment.
There are five essential elements to an independent action in equity to set aside a judgment: 1) a judgment which ought not, in equity and good conscience, to be enforced; 2) a good defense to the alleged cause of action on which the judgment is founded; 3) fraud, accident or mistake which prevented the defendant in the judgment from obtaining the benefit of his defense; 4) the absence of fault or negligence on the defendantís part; and 5) the absence of any adequate remedy at law. Petewon, 6 FSM Intrm. at 499, 1 CSR at 11. If any one of these elements is missing the court cannot take equitable jurisdiction of the case. Id. at 499, 1 CSR at 12.
The Brutonsí independent action for relief is based on an affidavit from the witness who provided key testimony in the earlier action. The affiant swears that in the earlier trial (the judgment from which the Brutons now seek relief), he knowingly and purposefully committed perjury at the behest of the parties and counsel opposing the Brutonsí predecessor-in-interest. That judgment was largely based on this allegedly perjured testimony and its credibility. In response, Enlet offers his own affidavit based on personal knowledge that disputes essential allegations of the first affidavit.
In order for the court to grant the Brutons the relief they seek, it would have to make a factual finding that this witness was lying under oath when he testified at that trial and that he is not lying under oath now. Such a determination cannot be based on just the proffered conflicting affidavits. It must be based upon an adversarial proceeding, with cross-examination, before a judge.
The court therefore concludes that it has the power to grant the relief that the Brutons seek, but that it will not be able to determine whether they are entitled to that relief until after trial. A key issue of material fact is genuinely in dispute. No summary adjudication of this issue is possible at this time.
II. Brutonsí Pretrial Motion
Enletís response to the Brutonsí pretrial motion was untimely filed on October 14, 2003. If the court were to consider this untimely filing as a failure to file an opposition, such failure to oppose a motion is generally deemed a consent to the motion. Actouka v. Etpison, 1 FSM Intrm. 275, 276 (Pon. 1983); FSM Civ. R. 6(d). But even when there is no opposition, the court still needs good grounds before it can grant the motion. Senda v. Mid-Pacific Constr. Co., 6 FSM Intrm. 440, 442 (App. 1994). For a motion to be granted, even if unopposed, it must be well grounded in law and fact, and not interposed for delay. In re Parcel No. 046-A-01, 6 FSM Intrm. 149, 153 (Pon. 1993).
The Brutonís pretrial motion asks that this court "issue an order staying all pending civil actions
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before this Court as well as the Chuuk State Supreme Court that concern any claims of trespass and/or determinations of land ownership for all lands in Polle . . . so that such claims can be first adjudicated by the Chuuk State Land Commission." Pretrial Motion at 1. They further ask that this stay include all "future civil actions . . . that relate in any way" to any such claims or determinations in Polle and that the court "issue an order directing the Chuuk State Land Commission to designate Polle Municipality as a land registration area" so that it could determine land ownership in Polle. Id. at 3. The Brutons state that once the Land Commission had determined the ownership of the tidelands in this case, then the court could lift the stay and adjudicate the trespass claims. Id.
The Land Commission has primary jurisdiction to determine and register land titles. Kapas v. Church of Latter Day Saints, 6 FSM Intrm. 56, 60 (App. 1993). Once an area has been designated as a land registration area, courts cannot entertain any action regarding land titles in that area unless special cause has been shown. 67 TTC 105; Iriarte v. Etscheit, 8 FSM Intrm. 231, 238 (App. 1998). Polle has not been designated a land registration area. The statute provides that "[t]he land commission shall designate a registration area or areas within which it believes it will be desirable and practicable to register within a year most of the land . . . ." 67 TTC 104.
The statute authorizes only the Land Commission to declare a land registration area. The Brutons have not identified any authority that would permit a court to designate a land registration area, or to order the Land Commission to designate one. The statute leaves that to the Land Commissionís discretion based upon its determination of desirability and practicability, which is uniquely within its expertise and authority to make. A court has no special ability to determine in what areas registration may be accomplished within one year or whether most land in Polle could be registered within one year. Furthermore, while the Land Commission has the statutory authority to determine and register land titles, what is at issue here is not title to land, but the ownership and possession of tidelands) shallow water. Whether the Land Commission has the legal authority and the technical ability to determine, survey, and register tidelands is an unanswered question.
Additionally, the requested stayís breadth is far beyond the courtís power to grant. The court cannot order a stay in cases in another court with parties not before this court who have had no notice and opportunity to be heard. Even for cases where the parties are the same as in this case, no authority has been cited for such extraordinary relief. See Pohnpei v. Kailis, 6 FSM Intrm. 460, 463 (Pon. 1994). Nor should it prevent other, unknown persons from seeking future court relief. The court could order a stay in this consolidated case. But what purpose would that serve? The Land Commission is apparently currently unable to act in the matter and no other reason for a stay has been offered or is apparent.
Those other court cases will proceed and will resolve, if they can, the rights of the parties to them. A court can determine no more than who among the parties before it has a better claim to title (or in the case of trespass) possession). See Rosokow v. Bob, 11 FSM Intrm. 454, 457 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2003), denying rehíg of Rosokow v. Bob, 11 FSM Intrm. 210, 217 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 2002). A court usually cannot determine who has title good against the world. Land registration (determination of title presumptively good against the world) is the province of the Land Commission and its procedures, 67 TTC 117, not of a court.
The Brutonsí pretrial motion, not being well grounded in law and fact, is accordingly denied. The only ground cited for the requested stay is rejected.
III. Further Proceedings
The court will therefore schedule a pretrial conference, at which dates for further proceedings
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will be set. Those dates will include dates for filing pretrial statements and for trial. The pretrial statements shall include a list of witnesses each party expects to call and a concise statement of eachís expected testimony; a list of expected exhibits; and a statement of the law and the facts that each expects to rely upon. At this conference, the status and posture of parties Nairo, Misasy, and Jona must also be explained to the court. The parties shall also raise any other issues that anyone feels needs to be addressed before trial.
Accordingly, this court has, in a proper case, the power to grant relief from a state court judgment in an independent action, but a determination whether such relief will be granted in this case must await trial. The Brutonsí pretrial motion asking for a stay and the designation of Polle as a land registration area is denied.
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1. The FSM Rules of Civil Procedure contain a similar provision. FSM Civ. R. 60(b) ("This rule does not limit the power of a court to entertain an independent action to relieve a party from a judgment . . . or to set aside a judgment for fraud upon the court.").