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Railroad Right of Way Dispute - Law of Easements and the Boundary Consultant

On March 10, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision of immediate interest to surveyors and land use professionals nationwide. One ultimate issue in this case centered on the rights associated with railroads established over public lands under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 Act, 43 U.S.C.S. 934.

This decision—Brandt v. U.S.A. 134 S.Ct. 1257 (2014)—includes specific conclusions regarding the rail line under consideration and provides valuable guidelines for anyone attempting to determine property rights for railroads in any jurisdiction of the United States.

General History:

Chief Justice Roberts begins with background information on prior railroad enabling statutes and includes a discussion of the changing public attitude that led up to the passage of the 1875 Act. These considerations are essential to an understanding of legislative intent of the U.S. Congress—or of individual states.

Circa 1870, government officials bowed to public pressure and began criticizing previous legislative acts that had granted lands in fee simple absolute to the railroad companies. These grants had been made previously to individual railroad companies in exchange for their commitment to construct additional rail lines extending into the western states. A house resolution recorded in 1872 summarizes the popular opinion of the day: “…the policy of granting subsidies in public lands to railroads and other corporations ought to be discontinued, and that every consideration of public policy and equal justice to the whole people requires that the public lands should be held for the purpose of securing homesteads to actual settlers, and for educational purposes, as may be provided by law.”

As a direct result of the attitude prevalent at that time, the 1875 act was designed to create a more limited property right for the benefit of the railroad companies. This attitude also is reflected in the numerous special acts passed between 1871 and 1875 for the creation of specific rail lines through public lands. The relevant portions of the 1875 act remained in force for over 100 years until they were finally repealed in 1976.

Specific Tract and Rail Line:

Coincidentally, 1976 also marks the date of an 83-acre patent to Melvin and Lulu Brandt for a tract in Fox Park, Wyoming. Justice Roberts observes that the grant was made in fee simple but was subject to several exceptions. In addition to legitimate existing rights associated with two roads, the grant also included the following language: “…subject to those rights for railroad purposes as have been granted to the Laramie[,] Hahn's Peak & Pacific Railway Company, its successors or assigns.”

The rail line under consideration was created in 1908 and was originally assigned to the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad. The original line was 200 feet in width and stretched from Laramie, Wyoming to Coalmont, Colorado. Never a profitable route, the rail line changed hands several times until it came under the control of The Wyoming and Colorado Railroad, which eventually notified the Surface Transportation Board that it was abandoning the line in 1996. The tracks were removed, and the process of abandonment was completed in 2006.

The U.S. Government quickly initiated an action to quiet title to the abandoned railroad. This action was disputed by Brandt, who claimed that the easement was extinguished and that he owned fee simple title to the property formerly occupied by the rail line. The government argued that a reversionary interest had been consistently retained by the U.S. Government in similar situations.

The District Court and Court of Appeals both sided with government representatives, and the summary judgment granted at the lower court level was ultimately challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Problem:

This ruling hinges on the nature of the right granted to the original rail company in 1908. Government representatives attempted to separate railroad easements from other servitudes. They claimed that while easements generally leave no remaining interest after abandonment, railroad interests represented a separate class of property interests. This argument is not without merit, considering the wealth of special legislation and common law decisions that define the rights associated with the operation of a railroad line.

“Right-of-Way” is an Ambiguous Term:

The term “right-of-way” is often associated with railroads and is a common source of confusion—both in the courtroom and among the general population. A right-of-way may describe a limited interest or servitude over the land of another, or it may refer to the strip of land itself. The phrase is sufficiently vague to be treated as a locational term rather than a title description by most courts.

The Washington decision Ray v. King County: 86 P.3d 183 (2004) is one of many recognizing that a railroad right-of-way may be a fee simple strip of land or an easement, depending on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the rail line in question.

While many railroad rights-of-way may be public easements, statutes and regulatory authority allow railroad companies to control many activities within the corridor. Public safety is a legitimate consideration: road crossings are strictly controlled and the public (including the owner of the underlying fee) may be barred from entering the rail corridor except in limited circumstances. In summary, the holder of a railroad right-of-way has discretionary powers within the affected area that extend far beyond those generally associated with easements for driveways or utilities.

Previous Precedent:

Fortunately for Brandt, a relevant decision was already on record. Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States: 315 U.S. 262 (1942) also dealt with a rail line created under the authority of the 1875 act. In this instance, oil and gas reserves were discovered under the right-of-way, and the railroad company was attempting to claim ownership of the underlying mineral rights based on the 1875 act. In this decision, the U.S. government had successfully argued: “That petitioner has only an easement in its rights of way acquired under the Act of 1875 is therefore clear from the language of the Act, its legislative history, its early administrative interpretation and the construction placed upon it by Congress in subsequent enactments.”

Great Northern already had recognized that the 1875 act creates a right that passes “over” the land, and results in a “right of occupancy.” Justice Murphy notes that the act was a “product of the period” and emphasizes the importance of surrounding circumstance in determining the true legislative intent of the act. Interpretations of the act recorded concurrently or shortly after the law was enacted are considered at length, and the court concludes: “Also pertinent to the construction of the Act is the contemporaneous administrative interpretation placed on it by those charged with its execution…The first such interpretation, the general right of way circular of January 13, 1888, was that the Act granted an easement, not a fee. The same position was taken in the regulations of March 21, 1892, 14 L. D. 338, and those of November 4, 1898, 27 L. D. 663. While the first of these circulars followed the Act by 13 years, the weight to be accorded them is not dependent on strict contemporaneity.”

It is unfortunate for the arguments of government representatives in Brant v. U.S.A. that they took a position diametrically opposed to the government stance in Great Northern. As a result, the position taken by the U.S. government in Brandt v. U.S.A. is severely compromised by the precedent already established in Great Northern.

Additional Discussion:

Despite the obstacles in their path, government representatives involved with Brandt v. U.S.A. were not yet ready to yield. Justice Roberts, in a moment of levity—or sarcasm—observes that the government representatives now indicate that: “Great Northern did not really mean what it said… Government asks us to hold that the right of way is not an easement for purposes of what happens when the railroad stops using it.”

Roberts includes a basic definition of easements in his analysis: “An easement is a “nonpossessory right to enter and use land in the possession of another and obligates the possessor not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement.” He recognizes that, unlike most possessory estates in land, an easement is extinguished completely when abandonment is conclusively proved, leaving the possessor of the underlying fee with unencumbered ownership. Previous precedent suggests that any assumption of a reversionary right in this circumstance would be unreasonable.

Government argues that, because of the unique rights associated with railroad rights-of-way, the 1875 act cannot (and was not intended) to create a “bare common law easement” and that a reversionary right was implied. This argument is of particular importance because of the plan to convert the former railroad right-of-way into an urban trail under authority of the National Trails System Improvements Act of 1988. Government argued that this act implies a belief on the part of congress that a reversionary right to the United States exists for railroad rights-of-ways.

The specific language of the 1988 act states that: “any and all right, title, interest, and estate of the United States…” will remain with the United States if that interest is abandoned. However, the language of this act does not create additional rights that did not exist previously, and the Act does include criteria for identification of any existing rights.

The final 8—1 decision in Brandt v. U.S.A. includes this conclusion: “More than 70 years ago, the Government argued before this Court that a right of way granted under the 1875 Act was a simple easement. The Court was persuaded, and so ruled. Now the Government argues that such a right of way is tantamount to a limited fee with an implied reversionary interest. We decline to endorse such a stark change in position…”

Lessons from the Decision:

As is the case with any court ruling, it is important to note what Brandt v. U.S.A. does not say. There is no mention of any underlying constitutional issues hindering the proper application of the National Trails System Improvements Act of 1988. Nor is this ruling intended to call into question reversionary interests held by federal or state government on other rail lines created under the authority of different legislative acts.

Despite its limitations, the significance of this ruling should not be ignored. Thousands of miles of rail lines across much of the United States were created under the aegis of the 1875 act and might be susceptible to similar analysis.

In a more general sense, Brandt v. U.S.A. is an excellent demonstration of the proper method for analyzing property rights associated with a rail line. While the words of the original enabling act are critical, it is important to consider statutory language in its entirety rather than focusing on specific and isolated terms. This is a specialized application of the “four corners rule” commonly applied to writings before the court.

In addition, this court emphasizes the importance of surrounding circumstances when determining the intent of legislative acts. The current court—and the court associated with the ruling of Great Northern—went to great lengths to determine the political tone of the nation at the time the legislation came into being. They also consulted related documents written concurrently, or shortly after the enactment of the original law.

The specific language of the private grants is another critical consideration and their relationship to the rail easement is important. Had the original grants been worded differently, the end result could have been quite different for Brandt, regardless of the language of the 1875 act.

As these rulings demonstrate, identifying all of the relevant surrounding circumstances associated with disputes between railroads and private landowners may be a difficult process. Without complete research and proper analysis, guesswork is the only possible result. An unsupported solution is generally a poor substitute for professionalism and shoddy research may come back to haunt land use professionals.

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