Brandt v United States (2014) H&FLR 2014-40

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.

Judgment

The court’s judgment is available here.

Biery v United States (2014) H&FLR 2014-27

Dorothy L Biery and Ors v United States (2014) H&FLR 2014-27

United States Court of Appeals (Federal Circuit)

4 June 2014

Coram: Prost CJ, Schall and O’Malley JJ

Appearing for the Plaintiffs (Appellants): Mark F Hearne, Meghan S Largent, Lindsay SC Brinton, Stephen S Davis and Debra J. Albin-Riley (all of Arent Fox LLP) .
Appearing for the Defendant (Respondent): Nina Robertson (US Dept of Justice) and Robert G Dreher (Acting Assistant Attorney-General)

Catchwords: Kansas – real property – rails to trails – taking – deeds – National Trail Systems Act – fee simple – right-of-way – easement

Facts: The plaintiffs were landowners in Kansas whose properties abutted a rail corridor. The corridor was the subject of various deeds granted by the landowners’ predecessors in favour of a series of operators of the railway. The railway operator abandoned its interest in the rail corridor, which was converted into a recreational trail under the National Trail Systems Act.

The plaintiffs alleged that the conversion of the rail corridor was a taking (or compulsory acquisition) of their property interests and sought compensation. The proceeding was dismissed on the basis that the plaintiffs held no fee-simple interests that could be the subject of a taking*. Their claims were dismissed**. The plaintiffs appealed.

Held: per curiam, upholding the appeal in part and dismissing it in part –

1. State law controls the nature and scope of a property interest in a rail corridor.

Preseault v United States, 100 F. 3d 1525 (Fed. Cir., 1996), followed.

2. In Kansas law, railway operators do not take fee-simple ownership of narrow strips of land taken as rights-of-way.

Harvest Queen Mill & Elevator Co v Sanders, 370 P.2d 419 (Kan., 1962).

3. A deed which directly or indirectly describes or refers to the land’s use or purpose as a right-of-way is considered to have granted an easement. However, where a deed to a railway operator contains no restrictions, reversionary clause or other indications that it is solely for a right of way, the title will be considered to have been granted in fee simple.

Stone v USD No. 222, 91 P.3d 1194 (Kan., 2004) followed.

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

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* Biery v United States (Court of Federal Claims, 20 August 2009, unreported).

** Biery v United States (Court of Federal Claims, 9 April 2013, unreported)