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Molfino v. Yuen

Supreme Court of Hawai'i

November 13, 2014

GEOFFREY MOLFINO, Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CHRISTOPHER J. YUEN, in his capacity as Planning Director, County of Hawai'i; COUNTY OF HAWAI'I, Respondents/Defendants-Appellees

CERTIORARI TO THE INTERMEDIATE COURT OF APPEALS. (CAAP-10-0000150; CIV. NO. 07-1-0378).

Peter Van Name Esser, for petitioner.

Laureen L. Martin, for respondents.

RECKTENWALD, C.J., NAKAYAMA, McKENNA, AND POLLACK, JJ., AND CIRCUIT JUDGE NAKASONE, IN PLACE OF ACOBA, J., RECUSED.

OPINION

Page 680

[134 Hawai'i 182] McKENNA, J.

I. Introduction

At issue in this appeal is whether this court should impose a duty of reasonable care on the Planning Department of the County of Hawai'i to a property owner, leading to potential negligence liability for damages allegedly sustained due to the Planning Department's failure to maintain all pertinent correspondence in its property files at all times. We hold that policy considerations counsel against the judicial creation of such a legal duty under the common law, and also hold that there is no basis under Hawai'i Revised Statutes (" HRS" ) Chapter 92F (the Uniform Information Practices Act (Modified), or " UIPA" ), or Rule 1-8 of the Hawai'i County Planning Department Rules of Practice and Procedure, to impose negligence liability upon the Planning Department based on the temporary absence of a government record from its files. We therefore affirm the judgment of the ICA, which affirmed the Circuit Court of the Third Circuit's[1] order granting the County's motion for summary judgment on Molfino's negligence claim.

II. Background

In this case, Molfino bought a piece of property on the Hamakua Coast of the Island of Hawai'i, identified bye Tax Map Key (" TMK" ) Number 3-2-002-035, for $350,000 in June 2003. Molfino wanted to create a subdivision on the property. He visited the Planning Department and made copies of the property's TMK file. Based on the property's zoning classification, Molfino understood that his property might consist of only two pre-existing lots. Allegedly missing from the TMK file at that time was an April 2000 letter from a realtor to the former Planning Director, which requested a pre-existing lot determination, and the former Planning Director's May 2000 response letter, which stated that the property consisted of six pre-existing lots.

Unaware of the prior six-lot determination, Molfino wrote a letter to the Planning Department in December 2003 requesting a pre-existing lot determination. Based on the size of the property and the number of homes already built upon it, Molfino stated to the Planning Department that there was a possibility the property actually consisted of seven pre-existing lots. Christopher Yuen, the Planning Director, responded to Molfino's letter in June 2004. Yuen's letter stated that Molfino's property consisted of two pre-existing lots. Apparently, the April 2000 and May 2000 letters were also missing[2] from the Planning Department's TMK files when Yuen and his employee, Edward Cheplic, prepared the June 2004 letter.

While awaiting Yuen's response, Molfino entered into a contract to sell the property for $795,000 to Mikhail Pruglo, and the deal was closed in July 2004. When Pruglo applied to subdivide the property, the May 2000 letter resurfaced. The Planning Department honored the May 2000 determination that the

Page 681

[134 Hawai'i 183] property consisted of six pre-existing lots and granted Pruglo a six-lot subdivision. The Planning Director inadvertently excluded a sliver of land on the property in granting the six-lot subdivision approval, so he revised his final subdivision plat map to include the sliver of land as a seventh lot. See Kellberg v. Yuen, 131 Hawai'i 513, 518, 319 P.3d 432, 437 (2014).

Molfino discovered that Yuen admitted making a mistake in the June 2004 letter, which initially determined that the property consisted of only two pre-existing lots. Molfino then sued Yuen and the County of Hawai'i for negligence (among other claims, which are no longer at issue on certiorari), alleging that they breached a legal duty to use reasonable care in maintaining the TMK file, and that this breach caused Molfino monetary damages. The County filed its Answer, raising as a defense that it owed no duty to Molfino.

The County later filed a motion for summary judgment on Molfino's negligence claim. The County pointed out that Molfino based his negligence claim solely on a duty to maintain records purportedly contained in the Hawai'i County Planning Department Rules of Practice and ...


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