Case Caption: Lawrence Hodge, et al. v. Bluebeard’s Castle, Inc.Case Number: S. Ct. Civ. No. 2012-0087Date: 06/10/2015Author: Cabret, Maria M. Citation: Summary:

In 2002, the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands found that a road providing access to property owned by the individual appellants is a public right-of-way and issued a declaratory judgment and permanent injunction preventing the appellee from blocking access to the road. On appeal, the United States District Court of the Virgin Islands-sitting in its former appellate capacity-misapplied Virgin Islands law in vacating that judgment and remanding the action. Because the Virgin Islands is not a state, the administrative federalism imposed by 48 U.S.C. § 1613 does not prevent a Virgin Islands court from exercising its revised jurisdiction to review this judgment of the District Court made under territorial law, which is not binding as the law of this case - even if some form of that doctrine were to be adopted in the Virgin Islands - because the District Court is not a coordinate court. The Appellate Division's holding was erroneous because the Superior Court properly found the road to be public based on its historical status as a public right-of-way. While the traditional ways a public road may be created were not relied upon, this is irrelevant where a road was public before 1917 and was never conveyed to a private party. The Federal Rules of Evidence did not at the time apply in the Superior Court, and 5 V.I.C. § 911(3) expressly provided that, unless excluded, the judge was deemed to have made the finding requisite to its admission. Moreover, 5 V.I.C. § 4927 has provided since 1965 that in determining the law outside this territory, the court may consider any relevant material or source, including testimony, whether or not submitted by a party or admissible under the rules of evidence. Thus the Superior Court was not required to conduct a hearing before admitting expert testimony at the 2002 trial, and the Appellate Division misapplied Virgin Islands law in holding otherwise. The Superior Court did not rely on this testimony in finding that the road is public and, in light of substantial evidence in the record that the disputed road was public before 1917 and remained a public right-of-way after that time, it cannot be said that its conclusion was clearly erroneous. The Superior Court did not expand the scope of the property that was in dispute during the 2002 trial, and the Appellate Division misapplied Virgin Islands law in vacating its judgment. The Appellate Division's April 1, 2009 order overturning the judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings is vacated, and the Superior Court's April 16, 2012 order and opinion issued in response to that remand is also vacated. The Superior Court's June 17, 2002 permanent injunction and declaratory judgment is reinstated. A motion for attorney's fees is not ripe for adjudication while an appeal is pending, and therefore the Superior Court's October 4, 2012 order is vacated and that portion of the Appellate Division's April 1, 2009 order vacating the Superior Court's original attorney's fees award is not disturbed, but no opinion is expressed at this juncture on the Appellate Division's stated reasons for doing so. If any of the parties now wish to seek attorney's fees as a prevailing party, they may do so in the Superior Court as provided for by the rules of court.

Attachment: Open Document or Opinion