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Zuckerberg Sues Hawaiians for Their Property: What's 'Quiet Title'?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

When you buy a piece of property you want to know that you, and you alone, own what you've just purchased. This may seems obvious, but when it comes to buying real estate, ensuring that no one else has a legal claim to the land can get a bit more complicated.

This is especially true in Hawaii, where state law can grant property rights to descendants, sometimes without their knowledge. And if you're Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and you just bought 700 acres on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, that means filing legal claims against hundreds of Hawaiians to ensure their legal claims to the land are extinguished.

Land Status Updates

As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser describes, land in Hawaii was not always available for sale and private ownership, and once private ownership was permitted, certain legal protections on "kuleana lands" were put in place for native citizens:

Kuleana lands refers to real estate initially acquired by Hawaii citizens through the Kuleana Act of 1850, which followed the Great Mahele, in which the Hawaiian kingdom began allowing private ownership of land. Often, Kuleana lands automatically passed to heirs of the first owner in absence of a will or deed, and then down through subsequent generations of descendants who in some cases now own just fractions of an interest in the property without documentation.

Almost a dozen small parcels of such land cross Zuckerberg's new estate, some as small as two acres, and he has filed at least eight lawsuits against as many as 300 people (some living, some dead) in an effort to gain sole ownership and access to the entire property.

A Loud "Quiet" Action

Depending on your perspective, Zuckerberg's lawsuits are either an aggressive land grab, uprooting native landowners, or the legal means by which unwitting landowners can be properly compensated for their property. "Quiet title and partition" actions force the sale of undeveloped land to the highest bidder at a public auction. The Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law says the law has been used to reduce Native Hawaiian landownership: "Partition by sale in particular is highly problematic for the Native Hawaiian community because it severs a family's connection to ancestral land."

Zuckerberg defended the legal action, saying it's the only way to fairly compensate landowners, "descendants who own 1/4% or 1% of a property [who] don't even know they are entitled to anything."

"To find all these partial owners so we can pay them their fair share, we filed what is called a 'quiet title' action. For most of these folks, they will now receive money for something they never even knew they had. No one will be forced off the land ... We love Hawaii and we want to be good members of the community and preserve the environment. We look forward to working closely with the community for years to come."

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