10 March 2014

Law in Plain English: Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogMarvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States

Argument: Jan 14 2014 (Aud.)

"Though we recognize that the Seventh Circuit, the Federal Circuit and the Court of Federal Claims have concluded that the United States did not retain any reversionary interest in these railroad rights-of way, we are bound by our precedent."
United States v. Brandt, 496 F. App'x 822, 825 (10th Cir. 2012) cert. granted, 12-1173

Background: In 1976, the government conveyed 83.32 acres of land to Melvin M. Brandt and Lula M. Brandt — the parents of Marvin M. Brandt. The land patent conveyed the property in fee simple and stated that it was subject to a right-of-way granted to the Laramie, Hahn's Peak, and Pacific Railroad Company for railroad purposes in 1908. In 1987, the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad Company, Inc. ("WYCO") acquired the railroad right-of-way and operated the rail line for a number of years. In May 1996, WYCO filed a Notice of Intent to Abandon Rail Service with the Surface Transportation Board ("STB"). The STB approved abandonment of the rail line in December 2003, and, in January 2004, WYCO notified the STB that it had completed its abandonment of the railroad right-of-way. The United States sought to quiet title on the theory that it had an implied reversionary interest in the right-of-way. The District Court found in favor of the United States, who sought to use the right-of-way for a rails-to-trails conversion. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The Court of Federal Claims dismissed a parallel claim by Brandt for lack of jurisdiction, but the Federal Circuit reversed.

Issue: The question before the Court was whether the United States retained an implied reversionary interest in rights-of-way created by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 after the underlying lands were patented into private ownership.

Holding: In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad’s abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. As a result, the Government did not retain an implied reversionary interest in the right-of-way.
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