Landowner Wins in SCOTUS Rails-to-Trails Case

March 10, 2014

In an 8-to-1 decision released today, the United States Supreme Court sided with the landowner when it held that the United States government does not retain a reversionary interest in a railroad right-of-way when it is abandoned by the railroad.

The right-of-way in this case was granted pursuant to the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. It was granted to the railroad in 1908, and crossed land that the United States conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. The patent was granted subject to the railroad’s rights in the 1875 Act right-of-way, but it was silent on what would occur if the railroad later abandoned those rights.

The landowner, Marvin Brandt, challenged the government’s quiet title action, arguing the right-of-way was only an easement which was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it. Oddly, this was precisely what the government argued in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942). The government’s attempt to convince the Court to limit the Great Northern holding to issues related to the ownership of mineral oil and rights was unsuccessful. Justice Sotomayor dissented, believing that the majority relied too heavily on Great Northern and ignored previous, controlling precedent.