A Hawaii Supreme Court decision could determine the fate of thousands of beneficiaries who have been waiting years for relief.

A historic $328 million class action settlement for thousands of Native Hawaiians who waited decades for homestead leases on ancestral lands has been held up indefinitely as the Hawaii Supreme Court sorts out an appeal by a beneficiary who has been left out of the settlement. 

Parties in the matter, including the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and First Circuit Court Judge Lisa Cataldo, have until Tuesday to respond to a petition by Rickey Rivera Jr., a Native Hawaiian who has been deemed ineligible for payment under the settlement. 

Hawaii State Supreme Court Building. Aliiolani Hale.
The Hawaii Supreme Court is determining whether a Native Hawaiian beneficiary has the right to participate in a historic class action settlement. In the meantime, the distribution of other settlement claims is on hold. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

While Rivera’s petition is pending before the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court is stepping in to determine whether Rivera can participate in the settlement, according to an order issued on Tuesday. The Supreme Court’s ruling will effectively determine whether Rivera’s appeal should proceed.

In the meantime, class members entitled to relief will have to wait until the courts sort things out, per the terms of the settlement. Many of the beneficiaries are elderly people who are literally dying while waiting.

“That’s the toughest part – that the payouts to the beneficiaries who are entitled to them are not happening,” said Hawaii Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, who co-chaired the Native Hawaiian Legislative Caucus that helped secure money for the settlement in 2022. 

“But it’s a matter for the court to determine at this point whether this individual is one of them,” Keohokalole said of Rivera.

No longer represented by plaintiffs’ lawyers, Kalima settlement appellant Rickey Rivera has been reduced to filing hand-written pleadings with the court while he represents himself. (Screenshot)

Cataldo, who is presiding over the underlying suit, titled Leona Kalima v. State of Hawaii, has also expressed frustration for DHHL beneficiaries waiting for relief.

“Despite the long history of this case and the loss of life while awaiting resolution — and through no fault of the class members who have cognizable claims — their long-awaited receipt of their share of the settlement proceeds is again out of their hands and for now, out of their reach,” the judge wrote in an Oct. 9 order. “It is a travesty.” 

At the same time, there’s the question of Rivera having his day in court. Rivera is no longer represented by the class action plaintiffs’ lawyers, Tom Grande and Carl Varady of Honolulu. Instead, he is representing himself, filing simple, hand-scrawled pleadings with the court. 

After being contacted by beneficiaries, Keohokalole said he and Hawaii Rep. Daniel Holt asked for a status update from Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez. She wrote that she believed Rivera should be allowed to appeal, but that her office would request the courts expedite the matter.

“As the Attorney General and chief legal officer of the State, I cannot stand by watching one individual’s legal right to pursue an appeal be treated as worthless by his former attorneys,” Lopez wrote. “Nor can I place the State fisc in jeopardy by authorizing the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds when the settlement is not final according to its own terms.” 

Grande and Varady declined to comment.

Keohokalole said he hopes the courts can resolve the matter soon, and provide the justice lawmakers had hoped to provide when allocating money for the settlement.

“That’s ultimately what this is: a measure of justice, and the clock is ticking,” he said.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author