U.S. Supreme Court Says Ownership of Abandoned Railroad Right of Way Reverts to Landowner

March 10, 2014 | Kristine A. Tidgren

United States v. Brandt, No. 12-1173, 572 U. S. ___ (2014), 2014 U.S. LEXIS 1788 (Mar. 10, 2014) , rev’g, United States v. Brandt, 496 Fed. Appx. 822, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 19058 (10th Cir. Wyo., 2012)

In an 8-1 decision, the United States Supreme Court has reversed the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to find that fee simple ownership of an abandoned railroad right of way vested in the owner of the surrounding tract, not in the United States, which had claimed a reversionary interest.

The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 (the “Act”) provided railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U. S. C. §934. In 1996, the United States conveyed a land patent to the defendant’s family, conveying fee simple title to 83 acres crossed by a right of way provided to a railway company by the Act. The patent was granted “subject to those rights for railroad purposes as have been granted to” a railway company and its successors. The patent did not specify what would occur if the railway abandoned the right of way. In 2004, the railway’s successors abandoned the right of way. In 2006, the United States filed an action against the defendant and others, seeking an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way. The district court granted summary judgment to the United States, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the United States had retained an implied reversionary interest in the right of way, which vested in the United States when the right of way was relinquished.

The United States Supreme Court reversed, finding that fee simple had vested in favor of the defendant when the railway abandoned the right of way. The Court based its decision in large part on the fact that the United States had argued before the Court the opposite position and won more than 70 years ago, in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262, 62 S. Ct. 529, 86 L. Ed. 836 (1942). In Great Northern, the United States argued (and the Court agreed) that the Act had granted an easement and nothing more and that a railway company could claim no interest in the mineral resources beneath the surface of its right of way. The Supreme Court held that the same rule applied in the case at hand. The United States, the Court ruled, did not reserve to itself any interest in the right of way in the patent it granted to defendant’s family. Under Great Northern, the railroad thus had only an easement in its right of way over the land. Those basic common law principles, the Court found, resolved the case. When the railway abandoned the right of way, the easement terminated and defendant’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 his parcel. The Court held that pre-1871 statutes had little relevance to the question of what interest the 1875 Act conveyed to railroads. The Court ruled that the dissent (J. Sotomayer) was wrong to conclude that Great Northern merely held that “the right of way did not confer one particular attribute of fee title.” To the contrary, the Court stated, Great Northern specifically rejected the notion that the right of way conferred even a “limited fee.”

The Court concluded its opinion with the following:

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, especially given “the special need for certainty and predictability where land titles are concerned.”