Business First Look

Why Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is suing native Hawaiian families

A property bought by the Facebook chief executive in 2014 has overlapping claims under a form of law that predates the US annexation. 

Mount Makana is a famous landmark of Kauai's North Shore, having been the inspiration for the mystical 'Bali Hai' in the movie musical classic 'South Pacific.'
PRNewsFoto/ Kauai Visitors Bureau | Caption

Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to increase privacy on a piece of real estate he owns in Hawaii. Now, he’s quietly taking to court a group of local families with ancestral claims to parts of the property.

Three holding companies owned by the Facebook chief executive filed a series of lawsuits on Dec. 30 against a few hundred members of the families, in an attempt to force them to sell their land at a public auction to the highest bidder, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

The case puts a spotlight on a little-known issue with roots that predate the United States’ annexation of the island in 1898 and harkens back to competing notions of land ownership.

“This is a big problem in Hawaii,” one local lawyer who is not involved in the case told the Honolulu newspaper, while asking not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity.

In 1848 and subsequent years, the ruling monarchy on the island set about enacting a land-redistribution program known as the Great Mahele, which gave Hawaiians “allodial titles” – a kind of ownership without accompanying obligations to a government – to lands that they “so occupy and improve.”

These so-called "kuleana" lands were often passed down in subsequent years to heirs without much in the way of legal titles, and some of their descendants now own tiny parcels of land, without documentation, as the Star Advertiser noted.

Mr. Zuckerberg bought his property – 700 beachfront acres located on the northeast shore of Kauai – in 2014, and displeased island neighbors last year by erecting a 6-foot rock wall along the perimeter of the property.

That apparent desire for seclusion may be behind the lawsuits, as well. There are 14 parcels of kuleana lands owned by the families, within Zuckerberg's estate, which amount to just a little over eight acres of the property, and family members say this gives them the right to traverse the property.

The type of lawsuit being filed by Zuckerberg’s lawyers, known as a “quiet title” claim, has roots in the decline of large US agribusiness in the past three decades, according to a 2012 report from the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law. As agribusinesses began to sell off lands they’d once leased from native families (or used illegally), they sought court orders confirming their claim to the land.

Some of those with ancestral claims, however, have little in the way of ties to lands that have been divided and subdivided among family members for so long that the ownership percentages can be infinitesimal.

Zuckerberg is joined in the suit by retired University of Hawaii professor Carlos Andrade, who is trying to make sure a 2-acre piece of his property bought by his Portuguese immigrant great-grandfather doesn’t pass into the hands of the state, if no one in his family can pay the hefty property taxes.

“I feel that each succeeding generation will become owners of smaller and smaller interests, each having less and less percentage of the lands and less and less capability to make sure everyone gets their fair share of [his great-grandfather’s] investment in the future of his family,” wrote Dr. Andrade in a letter quoted by the Star Advertiser. More than 80 percent of his relatives, he estimates, are unaware of his great-grandfather’s legacy. 

Some of the cases involved in Zuckerberg’s claim may not have living owners, meaning his legal team will have to carry out genealogical research to figure out if any descendants are remaining and notify them of the proceedings.

"It is common in Hawaii to have small parcels of land within the boundaries of a larger tract, and for the title to these smaller parcels to have become broken or clouded over time," said Zuckerberg attorney Keoni Shultz in a statement to Business Insider. "In some cases, co-owners may not even be aware of their interests. Quiet title actions are the standard and prescribed process to identify all potential co-owners, determine ownership, and ensure that, if there are other co-owners, each receives appropriate value for their ownership share."

"We are working with a professor of native Hawaiian studies and long time member of this community, who is participating in this quiet title process with us," Zuckerberg wrote in a Thursday Facebook post, saying that he wanted to ensure all partial owners are paid for their share. "It is important to us that we respect Hawaiian history and traditions."