Oral Argument Before the Hawaii Supreme Court
No. SCWC-10-0000150, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 10 a.m.
GEOFFREY MOLFINO, Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant, vs. CHRISTOPHER J. YUEN, in his capacity as Planning Director, County of Hawai`i; COUNTY OF HAWAI?I; JOHN DOES 1-10; JANE DOES 1-10; DOE PARTNERSHIPS 1-10; DOE CORPORATIONS 1-10; DOE GOVERNMENTAL UNITS 1-10; and DOE ENTITIES 1-10, Respondents/Defendants-Appellees.
The above-captioned case has been set for argument on the merits at:
Kealakehe High School Gymnasium
74-5000 Puohulihuli Street
Kailua Kona, HI 96740
Attorney for Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant:
Peter Van Name Esser
Attorneys for Respondents/Defendants-Appellees:
Laureen L. Martin and Michael J. Udovic, Deputy Corporation Counsels
NOTE: Certificate of Recusal, by Associate Justice Simeon R. Acoba, Jr., filed 12/10/13.
NOTE: Order assigning Circuit Court Judge Karen T. Nakasone in place of Acoba, J., recused, filed 12/12/13.
NOTE: Order accepting Application for Writ of Certiorari, filed 01/17/14.
COURT: MER, CJ; PAN, SSM, & RWP, JJ; Circuit Court Judge Nakasone in place of Acoba, J., recused.
This Application raises an issue of first impression in Hawai?i: whether a governmental entity (here, the County of Hawai?i’s Planning Department) owes a duty to the public to maintain accurate and complete records. Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant Geoffrey Molfino filed an Application for Writ of Certiorari presenting the following question: “Because the Hawaii County Planning Department maintains permanent subdivision records, for both its own purpose and public access, does the County have a duty to exercise reasonable care in their maintenance and preservation?”
According to Molfino’s Complaint, Molfino bought a 49-acre parcel of land in Ninole on June 13, 2003 and sought a determination of lots of record by letter addressed to Christopher J. Yuen, the County Planning Director, on December 24, 2003. On June 2, 2004, Yuen responded by letter stating that the parcel consisted of two pre-existing lots. In the meantime, on July 19, 2004, Molfino sold the parcel. Molfino subsequently became aware of a May 22, 2000 letter prepared by the former Planning Department Director stating that the parcel consisted of six separate lots of record. Molfino alleges that that letter was missing from the Planning Department’s files during the period he owned the parcel. The Planning Department later determined that the 49-acre parcel consisted of six lots of record and granted the new owner approval for a seven-lot subdivision.
Molfino sued the County of Hawai?i and Yuen (in his official capacity) for negligence, alleging that they breached a duty owed to him to maintain complete and accurate Planning Department records. Molfino alleged that the breach of this duty caused him monetary damages. Molfino supported his argument that the Planning Department had a duty to maintain accurate and complete records with the Planning Department’s Rules of Practice and Procedure, § 1-8, entitled “Public Records.” That rule states, in relevant part, “All public records shall be available for inspection by any person[.]”
The circuit court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It concluded that Rule § 1-8 requires records to be open for public inspection but does not require that the records be maintained. It also ruled that Molfino should have gone through the formal subdivision approval process instead of relying on the Planning Department’s records to determine how many lots were on his property. The circuit court then concluded that imposing a duty of care on the County would result in “unremitted liability.” The circuit court reasoned that it would be too easy for a person reviewing the Planning Department’s records to manufacture a claim against the County. Lastly, the circuit court decided that the legislative branch (not the judicial branch) was the proper entity to determine whether to impose a duty to maintain accurate records upon the County.
The Intermediate Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court, and Molfino appealed the decision to this court.