Rights to Aquinnah lot contested in court

Descendants of a Wampanoag Tribe member appeared in superior court to assert their rights to a 5.7 acre parcel in Aquinnah.

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Tanisha Gomes (standing, left) and Kurtis Troy Small (standing, right) represent themselves and the other descendants of Louisa Pocknett at a Dukes County Superior Court summary judgment hearing recently. — Abigail Rosen

A local conservation group seeking to establish a clear title to land in Aquinnah has gone head to head with several descendants of a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), who claim they have an ownership interest. The dispute has played out for a number of years in Dukes County Superior Court. 

At a recent summary judgment hearing, the Vineyard Conservation Society was represented in Dukes County Superior Court by John Willis of Fidelity National Law Group in its case against an Aquinnah family over a 5.7-acre parcel of land which seems to have a questionable deed history.

The defendants are descendants of Wampanoag tribe member Louisa Pocknett of Gay Head, who was granted the parcel four years after her death in 1874. The major point of concern in the case is tracking down the conveyance of the property deed and the legal chain of title. Specifically, the court needs to decide the intended grantee of the lot, which was one of many that were set to be distributed among members of the tribal community in accordance with the 1870 Act, which ruled tribal land to be incorporated into the town of Gay Head, and subject to the laws of the commonwealth.

The current battle began in 2017, Tanisha Gomes — a descendant of Pocknett — told the Times, when her family refused to sign documents renouncing their rights to the land. The VCS asserts that the conveyance of the land in question, known as “Lot 240” or “Kennedy 240,” is straightforward, all the way up to it being granted to Vineyard Conservation Society as a donation by the Kennedy family–owned Red Gate Farm. 

The Aquinnah descendants of Pocknett state that Lot 240 was never the Kennedys’ to give, and contends that most of the chain of title, dating back to 1878, is fraudulent. 

The VCS argues that although the grant of the title was recorded as to Louisa Pocknett, it was the intention of the commissioners responsible for allocating the lots in 1871 to convey lot 240 to her daughter, considering Pocknett was deceased by the time distribution reports were finalized in 1878.

When Judge Karen Goodwin questioned why the case is not being held in land court, Willis said superior court is faster than land court, and he “didn’t expect the case to be contested.”

To make the already complicated case even more so, some of the defendants have been represented by Jeff Madison, current Aquinnah town administrator, who is still on record as representative attorney. Madison told The Times that he initially took the case as an “accommodation” to the late Shelley Carter, a childhood friend, and one of the defendants of the case, but “no longer represents anyone” in the group. Although Madison was not present for the hearing, it is not apparent in the court record that Madison has withdrawn from the case.

Court records show that Madison had failed to file the necessary paperwork recusing himself from the case, in addition to failing to file updated documentation about recently deceased defendants, including Carter.

Madison confirmed to The Times that he has not filed documents withdrawing from the case, but intends to file them. He said the reason why he is still listed as representing some of the defendants, is “because [his] clients have died.”

According to Madison, “the last remaining [client]” he said, referring to Carter’s grandson, “called me and told me that he didn’t need any representation.”

Madison also confirmed to The Times that he has not filed the paperwork to update the court records concerning recently deceased clients. When asked why that was, Madison responded that he did not want to discuss those reasons publicly.

Kurtis Troy Small, Carter’s grandson, told The Times that in October 2021, Madison called him urging the family to drop the case, to which Small replied that he no longer wanted Madison’s representation, out of fear that Madison did not have the family’s best interests in mind. 

Madison, who was appointed Aquinnah town administrator in 2017, had previously worked as a land assessor in the town, in addition to representing Cape Wind in its failed effort to set up 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound.

Gomes told Judge Goodwin that the family has approached numerous attorneys in an attempt to secure representation, but have had a difficult time finding someone who would take the case. Additionally, said Gomes, the legal fees associated with hiring a proficient attorney are unrealistically high.

The group of 20 defendants, a portion of whom appeared in court, and all without legal representation, expressed their interest in pursuing a jury trial in land court. Despite orders from Judge Goodwin to work to reach an out-of-court agreement, neither party expects the issue to be resolved in mediation.

A status hearing will take place on Friday, May 6. 

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