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Decoulos v. Town of Aquinnah

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 24, 2018

JAMES J. DECOULOS, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF AQUINNAH, the AQUINNAH/GAY HEAD COMMUNITY ASSOCIATION, INC., and the COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         In 1997, Plaintiff James J. Decoulos, along with other similarly situated landowners, initiated litigation seeking easements by necessity to allow access to various landlocked parcels of land in the Town of Aquinnah. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah et al., Misc. Case No. 238738 (Mass. Land Ct. May 20, 1997) (“Kitras”). The Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) reviewed Kitras on appeal, and on April 19, 2016, the SJC issued a final ruling that no easements by necessity exist. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, 833 N.E.2d 157, 162 (Mass. App. Ct. 2005) (“Kitras I”); Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, 49 N.E.3d 198, 202-04 (Mass. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 506 (2016) (“Kitras II”). During the nearly twenty years that Kitras was pending, Decoulos, either individually or as the trustee or beneficiary of various property-owning trusts, participated in other lawsuits seeking similar relief, including actions involving the parcel at issue here. After effectively being denied relief at each turn, Decoulos now sues the Town of Aquinnah (the “Town”), the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association (“AGHCA”), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for declaratory judgment (Count I), unconstitutional taking (Count II), and violation of due process (Count III), all claims that essentially derive from the courts' or the Defendants' refusal to endorse his claim to an easement.

         Currently pending before the Court are motions to dismiss the Amended Complaint [ECF No. 12] filed by each defendant for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or failure to state a claim. [ECF Nos. 14, 19, 21]. For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The relevant history of the land in the Town of Aquinnah (previously known as Gay Head) begins with a large-scale partition of Native American common land that occurred over one hundred years ago. This historical background is not in dispute and has been chronicled in several prior cases involving Decoulos, most recently by the SJC:

For much of the Nineteenth Century, a guardianship system managed the Native American tribes. Under this system, Native Americans were designated “involuntary wards of the State” where they could not sue or be sued, enter into legally binding contracts, or sell land to people outside of their own tribe. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, the Legislature began to depart from a paternalistic system of governance and move toward granting Native Americans full citizenship. Over the years, the Legislature appointed commissioners and committees to visit the Native American tribes and assess the tribes' condition, their way of life, and whether citizenship would be in their best interest.
In 1862, the Legislature established the district of Gay Head. Before the [partition] at issue in this case, Gay Head consisted of about 2, 400 acres, of which about 450 acres were held in severalty and the remainder was held by the [Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (“Tribe”)] in common . . . .
As the boundary lines were being determined in Gay Head, the Legislature granted Native Americans full citizenship. While other tribes were able to take full advantage of their citizenship status, the Tribe at Gay Head remained an aberration. Because Gay Head had not been incorporated as a town, the Tribe could not freely enjoy the newly acquired benefits of citizenship such as voting at town meetings or electing town officers . . . . [A] committee of Massachusetts Senators and Representatives visited Gay Head to determine whether it should be incorporated as a town . . . [and] unanimously recommended that the district of Gay Head be incorporated as a town. The Legislature responded quickly and officially incorporated the town of Gay Head. The Legislature simultaneously established a process by which the members of the Tribe could choose to partition the common land. “[A]ny ten resident owners of land” or, in the alternative, the selectmen of Gay Head may petition the probate court to initiate a division of the common land. After notice and a hearing, if a probate judge determined that it was in the best interest of the parties for the common land to be divided, the judge would appoint commissioners to partition the land.
In September, 1870, seventeen Gay Head residents petitioned a probate judge in Dukes County to divide the common land for the residents to hold in severalty. Court records reveal that after a hearing at which no one objected, Theodore Mayhew, a probate judge in Dukes County, concluded that the partition would be beneficial for the residents of Gay Head. Joseph L. and Richard L. Pease were appointed commissioners. In addition to partition, Richard Pease also was assigned to determine the boundary lines between the common land and the land held in severalty. The commissioners completed the partition in 1878. The land was divided into more than 500 lots. Not one lot included an express easement of access. As a result, the majority of the lots divided from the common land were landlocked. The commissioners expressly included a right of access over three lots to a creek for the purpose of fishing. They also reserved to certain lots the right to remove peat from other lots.
At the time of the division, there was an existing road that provided access from the Gay Head lighthouse to Chilmark, the neighboring town to the east. The road was in such “deplorable condition” that the committee in 1870 insisted that the Legislature repair the road. However, the lots at issue in this case did not abut this road. Over the past one hundred years, the landscape of Gay Head has changed. There are other roads in existence, such as the Moshup Trail that was created decades after the partition of the common land. The plaintiffs' lots do not abut these roads and remain landlocked.

Kitras II, 49 N.E.3d at 202-04 (internal citations omitted).

         Decoulos owns the eastern half of Lot 557 (the “Property”), which is one of the lots that was divided from the common land. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 41, 69. On December 18, 1964, Lot 557 was divided into two equal parts and the eastern half, which is now owned by Decoulos and is the subject of this litigation, was acquired by the Brutus Realty Trust on July 6, 1998. Id. ¶¶ 68-70, 158-59. At the time of the acquisition, Anthony C. Frangos was the sole trustee of the Brutus Realty Trust, and Decoulos was a beneficiary of the trust. Id. ¶¶ 158-59. On May 6, 2004, Decoulos was named a co-trustee of the Brutus Realty Trust, and in December 2008, he became the sole trustee after Frangos passed away. Id. ¶¶ 169, 176. On May 5, 2017, Decoulos deeded the Property to himself in his individual capacity. Am. Compl. ¶ 187. Decoulos has claimed and continues to claim that an easement exists through Lot 556 to allow access from the Property to the Moshup Trail. Decoulos v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 17 MISC 000428 (HPS), 2017 WL 5907489, at *1 (Mass. Land Ct. Nov. 29, 2017). Lot 556 is owned by the Town. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 160-163.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Decoulos has previously litigated the same or similar issues raised in this case, albeit in a variety of representative capacities and with respect to several other plots of land in Aquinnah.

         A. 1997 Action in State Court (Kitras)

         On May 20, 1997, Decoulos' wife Maria Kitras, as the trustee of Bear Realty Trust and the co-trustee of Bear II Realty Trust and Gorda Realty Trust (the “Bear Trusts”), filed a complaint against the Town and others in the Massachusetts Land Court seeking a declaration that easements by necessity were created by the 1878 partition of Native American common land. See Kitras et al. v. Town of Aquinnah, 833 N.E.2d 157, 162 (Mass. App. Ct. 2005) (“Kitras I”); [ECF No. 15-1 at 148-56]. Decoulos, as the co-trustee of Bear II Realty Trust and Gorda Realty Trust, joined Kitras as a plaintiff in the case. Kitras I, 833 N.E.2d at 162. The Bear Trusts claimed ownership of the lots numbered 178, 232, 243, 711, and 713. Id. In addition to seeking an easement by necessity, the complaint included claims for a prescriptive easement, a private way by prescription, and a public way by prescription. [ECF No. 15-1 at 148-156].

         In June 2001, a Land Court judge allowed the defendants' motion to dismiss the Kitras action. Kitras II, 49 N.E.3d at 201. The judge concluded that the United States was an indispensable party because any easement by necessity found on the plaintiffs' properties would burden neighboring lands that were owned by the Tribe, but were held in trust by the United States, pursuant to a 1983 settlement agreement.[1] Id.; see Kitras I, 833 N.E.2d at 162. The plaintiffs appealed, and in 2005, the Massachusetts Appeals Court determined that before addressing whether the United States was an indispensable party, the lower court “first had to decide whether easements by necessity could be implied for all or some of the lots.” Kitras II, 49 N.E.3d at 201; see Kitras I, 833 N.E.2d at 163. The Appeals Court concluded that “lots numbered 189 and above were created by the partition of the common land and, thus, had the requisite unity of title to establish an easement by necessity.” Kitras II, 49 N.E.3d at 201. Accordingly, the case was remanded to the Land Court “to determine whether there was an intent to create easements affecting lots [numbered] 189 and above, and, if so, the scope of such easements.” Id.

         “On remand, [the Land Court] bifurcated the trial, addressing first whether rights of access were intended at the time of the partition in 1878, [which would have created] easements by necessity. If so, then the judge would decide the location and proper routes of such easements.” Id. Focusing only on lots numbered 189 and above, the Land Court “concluded that easements by necessity did not exist because there was sufficient evidence to rebut the presumed intent of the grantor commissioners to create access easements.” Id. at 201-02.

         On appeal, a divided panel of the Appeals Court concluded that easements by necessity existed and remanded the case to the Land Court to determine their location. Id. at 202. Thereafter, the SJC granted further appellate review. Id.; see Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, 22 N.E.3d 981, 983 (Mass. App. Ct. 2015), rev'd, 49 N.E.3d 198 (Mass. 2016). On April 19, 2016, the SJC affirmed the judgment of the Land Court that the plaintiffs were not entitled to easements by necessity on their lots because they failed to sufficiently show that such easements were intended by the commissioners who partitioned the land. Id. at 210-11. The plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on November 28, 2016. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, 137 S.Ct. 506 (2016).

         B. 2002 Action in Federal Court (Frangos)

         While Kitras was pending in state court, Frangos, as trustee of the Brutus Realty Trust, sued the Town and a private landowner in federal court on June 10, 2002, seeking to establish an easement by necessity over Lot 556 (owned by the Town) to access Lot 557 (the lot at issue here), and claiming that the denial of such an easement constituted an unconstitutional taking. See Frangos v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 02-cv-11159-MLW (D. Mass. June 10, 2002); [ECF No. 15-1 at 175-82]. Although Decoulos was not a party to the action, he was a beneficiary of the Brutus Realty Trust when the case commenced. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 70, 158-59. Thus, this 2002 action involved both Lot 556 and the Property and the claims were nearly identical to those at issue here and in Kitras. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 165-168.

         On August 22, 2003, Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed the action without prejudice because (1) the Commonwealth was a necessary party to the easement claim, but was barred from suit by sovereign immunity, and (2) the takings claim was not ripe for review in federal court because the plaintiff had not exhausted the available state-law remedies. See Frangos v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 02-cv-11159-MLW (D. Mass. Aug. 22, 2003), ECF No. 27 (“Frangos”); [ECF No. 15-1 at 80-93]. On May 27, 2004, the First Circuit dismissed the plaintiff's appeal of Frangos after the plaintiff failed to file an opening brief. See Frangos v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 02-cv-11159 (1st Cir. May 27, 2004) [ECF No. 15-1 at 95].

         C. 2004 Action in Federal Court (Decoulos I)

         Three days after the dismissal of Frangos, on August 25, 2003, Decoulos (as co-trustee of Bear II Realty Trust and Gorda Realty Trust) and Kitras (as trustee of Bear Realty Trust and co-trustee of Bear II Realty Trust and Gorda Realty Trust), filed a new action in federal court against the Town and others concerning the same lots at issue in Kitras. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 03-cv-11590-NMG (D. Mass. Aug. 25, 2003); [ECF No. 15-1 at 186-211]. The plaintiffs brought claims (1) seeking a declaratory judgment stating that the decisions of the Massachusetts Land Court clouded the title to the plaintiffs' land, (2) alleging an improper taking through the denial of easements by necessity, (3) asserting a deprivation of the “reasonable use of their property, ” and (4) alleging a “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights” under 42. U.S.C. § 1985. Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 03-cv-11590-NMG (D. Mass. Nov. 25, 2003), ECF No. 17 at ¶¶ 158, 161-62, 166, 169.

         On September 30, 2004, Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton held that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court did not have jurisdiction over Counts I and II, because those counts improperly sought federal review of the judgments of the Massachusetts Land Court. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 03-cv-11590-NMG (D. Mass. Sept. 30, 2004), at ECF No. 55 at 7-8 (“Decoulos I”) (“This court simply does not have jurisdiction to invalidate civil state court judgments.”). Further, Judge Gorton dismissed Counts III and IV after concluding that neither count stated a claim upon which relief could be granted. Id. at 9-10 (plaintiffs “fail to articulate any federal right upon which the Town impinged” to sustain Count III and did not allege the essential component of “class-based animus” under Count IV). The plaintiffs' appeal of Decoulos I was dismissed for lack of prosecution after they ignored several court orders to retain counsel for the trusts, which Decoulos and Kitras were attempting to represent pro se. See Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, No. 05-2282 (1st Cir. Mar. 16, 2006); [ECF No. 15-1 at 78].

         D. 2004 Action in State Court (Brutus)

         On June 2, 2004, Decoulos and Frangos, as co-trustees of Brutus Realty Trust, initiated a second state-court action against the Town and others, asserting claims for an easement by necessity between Lot 556 and Lot 557, and an unconstitutional taking under federal and state law based on defendants' denial of access to Lot 557. See Frangos v. Town of Aquinnah, Misc. Case No. 299511 (Mass. Land Ct. June 2, 2004) (“Brutus”). [ECF 15-1 at 49, 59-61]. On August 17, 2011, the court stayed ...


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