Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is once again going after his neighbors in his latest effort to ensure his 700-acre Hawaiian compound remains impenetrable. This time, rather than erect another massive wall, Zuck has filed a series of lawsuits against several hundred people—some of whom are dead—who inherited or have claims to land Zuck purchased on the island of Kauai.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (paywall) published an in-depth look at the legal battles on Wednesday. According to the paper, the eight lawsuits, filed at the end of December, are “aimed at forcing these families to sell their land at a public court auction to the highest bidder.” The legal maneuver is making use of the state’s “quiet title” legal proceeding, which can be used to identify title owners and force land sales.
After Gizmodo reached out to Facebook with questions about the lawsuit and the newspaper report, Keoni Shultz, a partner at Cades Schutte, which represents the entities that control Zuckerberg’s properties, sent us the following statement:
“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. 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.”
When Zuckerberg paid $100 million for the compound in 2014, there were still about a dozen small parcels (known as “kuleana lands”) owned by native families who technically have the right to pass through the property. These lands have often been passed to heirs of the first owner, even in the absence of a will or deed. Essentially, it means that those who have some ownership of Zuck’s land—and it can be as small as one-hundredth of one percent, according to Star-Advertiser—can lay claim to it.
The paper notes that Zuck’s fancy legal footwork isn’t necessarily uncommon. Still, for the sixth-richest person in the world to file lawsuits against hundreds of native Hawaiians—some of whom are deceased—to force the sale of land that’s been passed down for generations is a bit of a dick move. Zuck’s lawyers say the defendants will be properly compensated should a judge order the sale of their land, but still—some families have held onto the properties for more than 100 years. (They can contest the cases, but it could cost them more than $100,000, according to the Star-Advertiser.)
Some, however, aren’t even aware of what’s happening. Marian Tavares, who reportedly has a 0.5 percent stake in the land, didn’t know about either the land or the lawsuit and “didn’t know what to make of the situation offhand,” according to the Star-Advertiser. In another case, a descendant of a Portuguese sugar cane farmer who bought land in 1894 is working with Zuckerberg’s team so the county doesn’t gobble up the family property if there’s no one left to pay tax on it.
Stephen Parham, a lawyer based in Georgia who specializes in quiet title action lawsuits, explained that they’re used to resolve disputes or other conflicting interests about the property. “That’s an interesting use of the quiet title procedure and it probably has some unique provisions,” Parham told Gizmodo, who also emphasized that quiet title actions vary depending on the state or jurisdiction. “It’s actually smart to file lawsuits before someone files one against him.”
Of course, Zuckerberg has a history of troubling his neighbors. Last year, the family announced it would build a gigantic wall around the border of the Kauai property, despite the fact that it displeased most of the neighbors. In 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Zuckerberg spent millions of dollars on construction of his other home in San Francisco, leaving neighbors feeling “under siege” for about 18 months. Then, in 2016, after the home was finally constructed, neighbors complained that Zuckerberg’s security detail was parking illegally on the street. And who could forget about his alleged doomsday bunker?
Then again, when you make $5 billion in the first two weeks of the year, suing hundreds of people is but a minor inconvenience.
Update 4:51 ET: In a Facebook post this afternoon, Zuckerberg called out “misleading stories” about the property battles. He also claimed that “For most of these folks, they will now receive money for something they never even knew they had. No one will be forced off the land.” (You can read his full post here.)