THE SUPREME COURT OF THE
FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA
Cite as Barker v. Paul ,
6 FSM Intrm. 473 (Chuuk S. Ct. App. 1994)

[6 FSM Intrm. 473]

NOPUKO BARKER,
Plaintiff/Appellant,

vs.

ERMES PAUL,
Defendant/Appellee.

APPEAL NO. 40

OPINION

Decided:  August 23, 1994

[6 FSM Intrm. 474]

BEFORE:
     Hon. Keske Marar, Associate Justice, Chuuk State Supreme Court
     Hon. John Tharngan, Temporary Justice, Chuuk State Supreme Court*
     Hon. Ready Johnny, Temporary Justice, Chuuk State Supreme Court**

     *former Chief Justice, Yap State Court, Colonia, Yap
     **FSM Public Defender, State of Chuuk

APPEARANCES:
For the Appellant:     R. Barrie Michelsen, Esq.
                                    Law Offices of R. Barrie Michelsen
                                    P.O. Box 1450
                                    Kolonia, Pohnpei FM 96941

For the Appellee:      Anter Chipen
                                    Trial Counselor
                                    Weno, Chuuk FM 96942

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HEADNOTES
Jurisdiction
     A court may sua sponte raise the issue of jurisdiction at any time because it is the duty of the courts and counsel to insure that jurisdiction exists.   Barker v. Paul, 6 FSM Intrm. 473 , 475 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994).

Jurisdiction; Property ) Land Commission
     Actions concerning the determination of land titles rest primarily with the Land Commission, which is statutorily charged with the registration and determination of land ownership.  When the Land Commission has designated a registration area the courts cannot entertain any action with regard to interests in land within that registration area without a showing of special cause, although any determination of the Commission may be appealed to the Trial Division of the Chuuk State Supreme Court.  Otherwise, it becomes final and conclusive.   Barker v. Paul, 6 FSM Intrm. 473 , 475-76 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994).

Jurisdiction; Property ) Land Commission
     Absent a finding of "special cause" on the record the trial court had no jurisdiction to entertain an action asserting an interest in land located within a designated registration area.   Barker v. Paul, 6 FSM Intrm. 473 , 476 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994).

Jurisdiction; Property ) Land Commission
     When the Land Commission has issued a Determination of Ownership which has become final upon the lapse of the time to appeal, the trial court has no authority or power to alter the final determination of ownership and boundaries.   Barker v. Paul, 6 FSM Intrm. 473 , 476 (Chk. S. Ct. App. 1994).
*    *    *    *

[6 FSM Intrm. 475]
 
COURT'S OPINION
KESKE MARAR, Associate Justice:
     This is an appeal from a judgment of the Trial Division determining an interest in land located in the Land Commission designated registration area of Nepukos, Weno Island.  Nopuko Barker (Nopuko), the Appellant here and plaintiff in the lower court, brought suit seeking title to a parcel of land.  Ermes Paul (Ermes), the appellee, had begun to build a concrete structure on a part of the land claimed by Nopuko and he was named as the defendant.

     The area Nopuko claimed would encompass what has been preliminarily designated by the Land Commission as Lots 014-A-21 and 014-A-20.1  Both lots are subdivisions of what was once a single larger parcel of land known as Neotis or Newotes.

     In 1978, Nopuko was issued a Determination of Ownership to parcel 014-A-20 which was designated in the determination as Lot 64076.  This property is commonly known as the Truk Women's Association (TWA) land.  The TWA lot is a portion of the larger lot 014-A-21 which Ermes claims.  Ermes' claim is currently pending in the Land Commission.2

     The trial court found that Nopuko owned the TWA land and held that the lot consisted of only acre of land.3  The trial court awarded the remainder of lot 014-A-21 to Ermes.

     Nopuko timely filed her appeal and raised three issues.  None of these issues require direct discussion as we hold that the trial court lacked jurisdiction and therefore vacate the judgment.

I.
     The issues facing this Court are: (a) may a trial court hear and decide a interest in land located within a designated land registration area absent a showing of "special cause" and (b) to what extent may a trial court alter a Determination of Ownership that has become final?  We sua sponte raise these jurisdictional issues as it is our duty to do so.  See Campbell v. Porter, 162 U.S. 476, 16 S. Ct. 871, 40 L. Ed. 1044 (1896) [it is the duty of courts and counsel to insure jurisdiction exists]; see also Chk. Civ. R. 12(h)(3) [at any time it appears to the court it lacks jurisdiction it shall dismiss the action].  The Court reviews questions of jurisdiction de novo.

     Actions concerning the determination of land title rests primarily with the Chuuk State Land Commission (Commission).  67 TTC 101 et seq.  That Commission is statutorily charged with the registration and determination of land ownership.  67 TTC 101.  The Commission may also designate a registration area.  67 TTC 104.  We take judicial notice that the island of Weno and the Nepukos area have long been designated as a registration area.

[6 FSM Intrm. 476]

     Once the Land Commission has designated a registration area "the courts shall not entertain any action with regard to interests in land within that registration area . . . without a showing of special cause why action by the court is desirable . . . ."  67 TTC 105 [emphasis added].  Of course, any determination of the Commission may be appealed to the Trial Division of this Court.  67 TTC 115.  If the Commission's determination is not appealed it becomes final and conclusive.  67 TTC 117.

I.  A.
     In applying these statutory provisions to the lower court's ruling concerning Lot 014-A-21, we first note that the land involved is in a designated registration area, pursuant to 67 TTC 104.  Therefore, before the trial division of this court may entertain an action with regard to an interest in land within the registration area there must be a finding of "special cause" showing why "action by the court is desirable."  67 TTC 105.  There is nothing in the record below that even suggests that any "special cause" existed for the trial court to take jurisdiction of this action.  Apparently, Nopuko by filing her action with the court below sought to bypass the Commission and the statutory requirement that she file her claim there first.  Ermes testified that his claim for this land and adjacent properties is currently pending before the Commission.  See Trial Transcript at 55-56.

     We hold that absent a finding of "special cause" on the record the trial court had no jurisdiction to entertain an action asserting an interest in land located within a designated registration area.4  All such actions must be first filed with the Chuuk State Land Commission.

I.  B.
     The trial court's decision with respect to the TWA parcel presents a different problem.  It is undisputed that the Commission on March 23, 1978 issued Determination of Ownership Number 103-78 for Lot 64076 located in Nepukos and known as Newotes to Nopuko and her children.  This is presumably Lot 014-A-20 on the preliminary plat map in the appendix.  The determination of the Commission was not appealed, thus it became final upon lapse of the appeal time.  67 TTC 117.

     As a final determination, there is nothing for the trial court to decide.  The ownership of that lot has been determined.  Also at the time of the determination the exact size of the property and its boundary was established.  The lower court simply has no authority nor power to alter any of these final determinations under the circumstances of this case.5  The ownership, the size and the boundaries of the property remain as shown in the file of Determination of Ownership Number 103-78.

II.
     The judgment of the lower court is vacated with instructions to dismiss the action and remand the matter to the Chuuk State Land Commission for its determination.
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[6 FSM Intrm. 477]

APPENDIX

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Footnotes:
 
1.  The preliminary map of the area in question has been attached to this opinion for reference only.
 
2.  Testimony of Ermes.  Trial Transcript (TT) at 55-56.
 
3.  Nopuko introduced some evidence that indicated the lot size was acre, but also introduced maps that show the lot as acre based upon the dimensions shown on the maps (104 x 110 feet equals approximately acre).
 
4.  Since there is nothing in the record concerning "special cause" we need not decide what cause is sufficient to bypass the Land Commission process in a designated registration area.
 
5.  This does not preclude an independent action to set aside the judgment.