Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v United States (2014) H&FLR 2014-40

Supreme Court of the United States

10 March 2014

Coram: Roberts CJ, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan JJ

Appearing for the Appellant: Steven J. Lechner (of Mountain States Legal Foundation)
Appearing for the Respondent: Donald B. Verrilli Jr (Solicitor General) and Anthony Alan Yang (of the Office of the Solicitor General)

Numerous parties appeared as amici curiae.

Catchwords: United States – property law – fee simple – railway – easement – rail trail – abandonment

Facts: In 1976 a grant of land in fee simple was made by the respondent to Marvin and Lulu Brandt. The land was granted subject to the rights which had been granted to the operator of the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railway (railway). The rights in question consisted of a right of way granted to the railway in 1908 under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act 1875 (43 U.S. Code §934) (Act). In 2004 the railway operator formally abandoned the right of way and removed the railway tracks.

In 2006 the respondent sought a judicial declaration of the abandonment and an order quieting title to the Right of Way in the defendant. It was inteded to convert the right of way to a recreational rail-trail. The trust which by then owned the land granted to the Brandts disputed the respondent’s claim on the grounds that the right of way was a mere easement which was extinguished by abandonment, leaving it with full title to the land. The respondent’s position was that it had retained a reversionary interest in the right of way which would restore it to the respondent if the railway’s interest were abandoned.

The government’s claim was upheld at first instance: United States v Brandt, 2008 WL 7185272 (D. Wyo., 8 April 2008) (the decision is incorporated into the Petition for Certiorari at pp.62 et seq). An appeal was dismissed: United States v Brandt, 496 Fed. Appx 822 (10th Cir, 2012). The defendant appealed.

Held: Per Roberts CJ, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Kagan JJ, allowing the appeal, that –

1. A grant to a railway operator under the Act grants only an easement and not a fee interest.

Great Northern Railway Co v United States, 315 US 262 (1942), followed.
Stalker v Oregon Short Line Railway Co, 225 US 142 (1912) and Great Northern Railway Co v Steinke, 261 US 119 (1923), doubted.

2. If the beneficiary of an easement abandons it, the easement disappears. The landowner then resumes a full and unencumbered interest in the land. Hence, when the railway operator abandoned the right of way, the easement terminated and Brandt’s landed ceased to be burdened by it.

Smith v Townsend, 148 US 490 (1893), followed.

Per Sotomayor J, dissenting, that the key issue in this case is defeasibility of title, which was not raised by Great Northern Railway v US. Railroad rights of way are a sui generis form of property rights, made on an implied condition of reverter.

Great Northern Railway Co v United States, 315 US 262 (1942), distinguished.
Rio Grande Western Railway Co v Stringham, 239 US 44 (1915), followed.


The court’s judgment is available here.