Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (2014) No. 12-1173, March 10, 2014.
In a case that piqued the interest of many throughout the West, including property owners and outdoor enthusiasts, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Wyoming property owner in a dispute over an abandoned railroad right of way. The case presented the question of what happens to a railroad’s right of way granted under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 when the railroad abandons it: does it go to the Government or to the private party who acquired the land underlying the right of way? Reversing the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the railroad’s abandoned right of way reverts to the private landowner.
The Supreme Court’s opinion begins with some extensive history regarding the settlement of the West and the federal land grant policies led to the present predicament. The opinion explained that to encourage early settlement and development of the West, Congress first passed acts giving railroad companies fee title to vast stretches of land (the land acquired by the Central Pacific – later the Southern Pacific – and the Union Pacific in exchange for their construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is a good example), but that following public complaints about the amount of land being given away, it passed the General Railroad Right–of–Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies only “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.” I.e., just the right to use the land – not fee title. One such right of way, granted to a railroad company in 1908, crosses land that the United States later conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent specifically stated that the land was granted subject to the railroad’s rights in the 1875 Act, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. In 2006, the Government sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the 1976 Brandt patent.
Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoyed full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a “mere easement,” and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Government. Although it acknowledged a division among lower courts regarding the nature of the Government’s interest, if any, in abandoned General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 rights of way, it concluded based on 10th Circuit precedent that the United States had retained an “implied reversionary interest” in the right of way, which then vested in the United States when the right of way was relinquished. The Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court rejected the Government’s position, in large part because the Government had won when it argued the opposite before the Supreme Court more than 70 years ago, in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States (1942) 315 U.S. 262. There, the Government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the 1875 Act granted nothing more than an easement to the railroad companies. Under Great Northern, therefore, the railroad had only an easement in its right of way over the land.
The Supreme Court then explained that, when the United States patented the parcel to the Brandt family in 1976, it conveyed fee simple title to that land, “subject to those rights for railroad purposes” that had been granted to the railroad. The United States did not reserve to itself any interest in the right of way in that patent.
After determining that the interest granted to the railroad was nothing more than an easement and that the U.S. retained no interest, the Court noted that the essential elements of easement, including what happens when they cease to be used, are well settled as a matter of property law. Applying basic common law principles, the Court determined that when the railroad abandoned the right of way, the easement referred to in the Brandt patent terminated. Brandt’s land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right of way as he enjoyed over the rest of the parcel.
Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion arguing that the majority improperly brushed off pre- Great Northern precedent suggesting that the United States retained a reversionary interest in railroad rights of way and, to the extent the majority regarded Great Northern as having abrogated those precedents, it placed on Great Northern more weight than that case could bear. She also claimed that the majority erred by relying on basic common law principles without recognizing that railroad rights of way were not always governed by the ordinary common-law regime.
Justice Sotomayor also pointed out the negative practical implications of the majority’s opinion, claiming that it “undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Echoing Justice Sotomayor, many rails-to-trails organizations have described the decision as a serious set-back to the hiking and bicycling trails system envisioned by Congress when it enacted the National Trails System Improvements Act of 1988; however, the decision appears to apply only to privately-held land transferred by the United States subject to an existing railroad easement that is subsequently abandoned. Many thousands of miles of trails along former railroad routes are situated on federal, state or local public lands, or on routes that were originally conveyed to the railroad companies in fee, rather than as easement. The decision does nothing more than confirm what has for centuries been the law of easements: an easement is a right to use another’s land for a specified purpose, and when the holder of the easement expressly or impliedly abandons its use, the easement no longer encumbers the underlying land.