The United States Supreme Court Issues an Important Decision Protecting Private Landowners’ Rights

On March 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its 8-1 opinion in Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, No. 12-1173, 572 U.S. ____ (2014). In Brandt, the Court considered the question of whether the United States retained an interest in rights-of-way granted to railway companies after the underlying lands were given to private landowners. It found those rights-of-way to be easements that were terminated upon abandonment by the railroad, therefore leaving the landowner’s property unburdened.

In the late nineteenth century, Congress began granting rights-of-way over public lands to private railway companies to encourage the settlement and development of the Western United States, eventually passing the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 (the “1875 Act”). Later, many of those same lands were conveyed to settlers and homesteaders, with the railway retaining its right-of-way over that land. The dispute in the Brandt case arose over such a right-of-way on a piece of property called the Fox Park parcel in the National Forest in Wyoming.

In 1908, the United States granted the right-of-way in question to a private company to build a railway from Laramie, Wyoming to Colorado. In 1976, the United States granted the land surrounding the right-of-way to Melvin and Lula Brandt via a patent, which stated that the land was granted subject to the railroad’s rights but did not set out what would occur if the railroad subsequently relinquished its rights. In 1986, a new railway company acquired and operated the right-of-way until it officially abandoned the land in 2004. Subsequently, the United States sued the Brandts, taking the position that abandoned rights-of-way revert back to the government. The Brandts filed a countersuit seeking full ownership of the land, including the right-of-way. Their argument was that the government only held an easement, which ceased upon abandonment of the right-of-way by the railway company. The district court found in favor of the United States and the US. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court reversed and found that the 1875 Act granted only an easement to the railway and did not grant any other type of property interest. Citing legislative history, past administrative decisions, and the Court’s 1942 decision in Great Northern Railway Company v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), the Court found in favor of the Brandts, noting that easements are “unilaterally terminated by abandonment, leaving the servient owner with a possessory estate unencumbered by a servitude.” Brandt at 11. The Court held that “…basic common law principles resolve this case. When the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad abandoned the right-of-way in 2004, the easement referred to in the Brandt patent terminated. Brandt’s land became unburdened by the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right-of-way as he enjoyed over the rest of the Fox Park parcel.” Id. at 12.

While the effects of this ruling remain to be seen, the Supreme Court’s decision undoubtedly has important implications for landowners whose property has been burdened by a right-of-way and any developments made pursuant to that right-of-way. Once the right-of-way is abandoned, it is now clear that the property of these landowners becomes unencumbered, such that the federal government has no interest in, nor claim to the property.