A landlord-tenant dispute on the small island of Molokai made the pages of The New York Times and other mainland newspapers early this month when Kalaupapa Rare Adventure, the small family company that has operated mule rides along a trail down the steep cliffs to the Kalaupapa peninsula some 1,700 feet below, was hit with an eviction order.
The eviction, announced in a March 31 press release from the landowner, R.W. Meyer, drew attention because the mule tours by KRA and its predecessors have been a staple of Molokai tourism for more than 40 years.
The eviction order, approved by a state judge on Maui, covers the area used by the mule tour operators to stable and pasture its animals, organize tour participants, and reach the trailhead, while the trail itself is controlled and managed by the National Park Service.
Armed sheriffs finally enforced the court order and removed KRA from the property on Saturday. A video posted on Facebook shows a small group of family members and supporters stood by while the property was secured. One company owner maintained throughout that the eviction was illegal, that the court had not ruled on her family’s claims to the property, and that she was leaving the property “under duress.”
The mule ride company was formerly operated by the late Eldon “Buzzy” Sproat, who led mule rides down the cliff to Kalaupapa for four decades. Sproat died in 2014, and his partner, Roy Horner, resigned from the company in early 2016. The company was left in the hands of Sproat’s family — wife Marlene, son Eldon “Sale”, and daughter Beatrice Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro.
Eldon “Buzzy” Sproat, who died in 2014, operated the Kalaupapa Mule Ride for nearly four decades. The company, now run by Sprout’s family, was evicted from the property used to stable the mules and stage the tours.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
R.W. Meyer, also a family owned entity, holds legal title to the land. It terminated the Kalaupapa tours lease after it was unable to negotiate an extension beyond its Jan. 31, 2017 expiration. The tour company stopped paying monthly rent at that time, according to news accounts.
R.W. Meyer filed an ejectment lawsuit soon after the lease expired, seeking court confirmation of its ownership of the property, and an eviction order allowing it to take the area back and remove any unauthorized people or property.
Sproat-Augustiro responded with numerous lengthy documents in efforts to block the eviction case from going forward, then filed her own lawsuit against the landowner in December seeking to hold on to the property. All her court filings were done pro se, without benefit of a lawyer.
It took R.W. Meyer and its attorneys nearly a year to get the court to approve the eviction order and affirm its legal title.
Making Sense Of The News
It’s a sad story all around.
R.W. Meyer is losing a long-time tenant, is now caught in the glare of publicity, and has been tied up in court for more than a year. The Sproat family, meanwhile, see themselves as the victim in the process.
In a Facebook post, Brandi-Lee Sproat-Tilini pointed to her father’s stewardship of the land for “over 45 years,” and said the family had been pushed until their backs were against a wall while trying to keep the company running. But then, she said, their research “found out that we had ancestors that were tied to these very lands and were indeed the land patent owners.”
Meanwhile, R.W. Meyer has received no lease payments for more than a year, is concerned about legal liability in case of acccidents or injuries on the dangerous trail, and has incurred significant legal costs in its court proceedings. The company said it is just trying to make prudent business decisions to benefit the family company’s beneficiaries, pointing out that it previously extended the lease twice while making financial concessions to KRA each time.
News coverage of the dispute has been mostly the typical “he said, she said” coverage which sheds little light on what was really going on. One side is quoted saying one thing, and then is contradicted by the other side. Then, as if it doesn’t really matter to the news reader where the weight of the evidence lies, the story is over.
What the public learned about the mule tour dispute through mainstream news reporting is that both sides in the lease dispute now claim to be the rightful owners of the land.
R.W. Meyer pointed to a long paper trail documenting its ownership of the land dating back into the 19th century, while Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro now says her family owns the “allodial title” tracing back to Royal Patents granted during the Hawaiian Kingdom.
But while the news reporting has been equivocal, the court record itself tells quite a different story.
Conspiracy Theories And Legal Quackery
It doesn’t take extensive research to determine the hundreds of pages of rambling documents filed by Sproat-Augustiro on behalf of herself and the family company over the past year are a crazy mishmash of legal mumbo jumbo and frivolous claims based on bizarre and long-discredited conspiracy theories that have no legal standing and have never been successful in court.
For example, take one document filed by Sproat-Augustiro in both state and federal courts last year. Its run-on title is a combination of buzzwords dear to those peddling discredited legal claims.
The title is a story in itself: “Commercial Notice of Amendment Petition and Complaint Within the Admiralty Pursuant to RCP #3 and #4 for the Petition for Agreement and Harmony in the Nature of a Notice of International Commercial Claim Within the Admiralty Administrative Remedy and Libel of Review and Entry of the Conclusive Evidence for Settlement and Closure of the Escrow by Commercial Affidavit Pleading in Fact and Points and Authorities and Memorandum of Law.”
Right from the beginning, this and other documents are full of bizarre claims. Sproat-Augustiro refers to herself and R.W. Meyer as “U.S. vessels,” and their “cargo” is said to include the court docket and the eviction lawsuit itself. To further confuse matters, which may be the primary purpose, Sproat-Augustiro invokes something called the “Public Vessels Act,” and goes on to refer to the court clerk as “a PUBLIC VESSEL and the CARRIER, being a vessel of the United States and its co-parties.”
In a related document, Sproat-Augustiro refers to the Second Circuit Court in Wailuku as “a corporation/fiction doing business for profit and gain under a grant of limited liability insurance evidenced by its tax identification number and is listed on/in Dunn and Bradstreet….”
The twisted reliance on maritime and commercial law, which requires so many contortions, is common among what courts and law enforcement reports identify with the “sovereign citizen” or “freeman” ideologies spread by the anti-government and anti-tax fringe.
“Sovereigns — also called ‘freemen on the land’ or ‘organic citizens’ — believe that an illegitimate, usurper federal government has taken over, and that they don’t have to pay taxes, pull over their cars for police or obey any other law they don’t like,” according to a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Bar Association.
It also reported “sovereign citizen” arguments “have caught on among some Native Hawaiian activists,” certainly no surprise to landowners, escrow companies, and others who have quietly dealt with challenges to land titles. There have also been criminal prosecutions of those who turned to selling their pseudo-legal resources which they claimed could stave off foreclosures or erase debts.
Buried in one paragraph is a hint that Sproat-Augustiro may have used a template based on mainland samples but repackaged by an unknown person for use specifically in Hawaii.
“I use a Bill of Lading/Petition/Complaint in all of my lawsuits,” wrote the unnamed author in a comment intended to be edited out of the final version before submitting to court. “The Bill of Lading identifies the cargo as the lawsuit, by describing the suit’s postal registry number … and by describing the paperwork as having a Kanaka Maoli flag on the front of the paperwork.”
Bogus Land Claims
The court record also contains a series of documents which Sproat-Augustiro says are evidence of her family’s rights to the land based on original Royal land patents. Their private land claims are wrapped in the emotional verbiage of Hawaiian sovereignty and the historic loss of native kuleana land rights.
But the documents don’t document the chain of title. They are primarily made up of several “Quitclaim Deeds” prepared by Sproat-Augustiro claiming authority to “correct” official land records that identify R.W. Meyer as the landowner. The quitclaim deeds purport to substitute herself and her heirs as the proper owners, replacing the Meyer company.
The late Buzzy Sproat on his mule overlooking Kalaupapa. The court documents filed by his family to assert a claim on the land were dismissed by lawyers for the property owners as “filled with incomprehensible statements.”
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
In addition, there are several documents titled, “Declaration of Land Patent,” again prepared by Sproat-Augustiro and purporting, it seems, to transfer the original land patents to herself.
These seem to reflect the belief that royal land patents are tied to their original recipients and heirs in perpetuity, allowing distant relatives living today to go back and claim land titles without regard to the land’s actual history. It’s a belief that runs contrary to the right of those who received royal land grants to sell, transfer, or otherwise convey their lands to others.
It’s no surprise that attorneys from the Honolulu law firm of Ashford & Wriston, representing the R.W. Meyer company, described Sproat-Augustiro’s documents as “filled with incomprehensible statements.”
They were being kind.
A federal judge in Northern California, confronted with similar documents in an unrelated case a decade ago, referred to them as “brimming with incomprehensible blather and riddled with ornate flubdubs.”
“Flubdub” is a word worth remembering in such circumstances, meaning pretentious nonsense or empty talk.
While these pseudo-legal claims appear silly, they have real consequences in the courts, where judges tend to give considerable leeway to pro-se litigants who represent themselves, not holding them to the strict procedural standards that would apply to licensed attorneys. However, these sorts of frivolous claims contribute to the workload of judges and courts, add to court delays, and saddle opposing parties with unnecessary costs.
And a mistaken reliance on such legal shenanigans to magically save the day for those wielding them in court had painful results in this case.
Although Sproat-Augustiro took the time to create and submit lots of dense but incomprehensible and ineffective paperwork in court, she did not file legal answers to the Meyer eviction lawsuit and did not file objections when Meyer’s attorneys sought a default judgment against Kalaupapa Rare Adventure.
And when she then tried to object orally in court at the last minute, her plea was denied because pro se litigants are allowed to represent themselves, but cannot legally represent other people or companies. Only lawyers are allowed to represent others in court. So the judge, in a seemingly straightforward ruling, held she had no legal standing to argue on behalf of the family’s company, which was the actual leasee and target of the eviction proceedings. As a result, they essentially forfeited their ability to object to the final eviction order.
Somehow, I doubt this eviction will be the end of the story. On March 12, Sproat-Augustiro registered a new business, Molokai Mule Ride, with the same mailing address as Kalaupapa Rare Adventure.
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Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here.