Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States

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Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 14, 2014
Decided March 10, 2014
Full case name Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al. v. United States
Docket nos. 12–1173
Citations 572 U.S. ___ (more)
Argument Oral argument
Prior history On writ on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit; United States v. Brandt, 496 Fed. Appx. 822 (CA10 2012) (per curiam)
Rights of way under the 1875 Act are easements that terminate by the railroad’s abandonment, leaving a private owner's land unburdened.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Kagan
Dissent Sotomayor
Laws applied
43 U.S.C. § 934

Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a railroad right-of-way granted under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 is an easement. Therefore, when a railroad abandons such a right-of-way, the easement disappears, and the land owner regains unburdened use of the land.


Historical context[edit]

From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the United States rapidly expanded westward. Responding to the California Gold Rush, Congress took steps to encourage the development, settlement, and full possession of the West. Doing so required reliable, efficient ways to transport people and property to and through them. Congress therefore passed numerous acts encouraging railroad development.[1]:670–677

From 1850 to 1871, these acts typically allocated rights-of-way to specific named railroads.[1]:673 These rights-of-way were initially construed as an "absolute" grant in "both the fee and possession".[2]:117 Later they were construed to convey "a limited fee, made on an implied condition of reverter" to the United States if the railroad stopped using the land for railroad purposes.[3]:271

Public opinion began to turn against these generous grants in the late 1860s. By the 1870s, legislators instead preferred to reserve public lands for settlers.[4]:slip op. at 3 An 1872 House resolution endorsed the change:

Resolved, that in the judgment of this House the policy of granting subsidies in public lands to railroads and other corporations ought to be discontinued, and that every consideration of public policy and equal justice to the whole people requires that the public lands should be held for the purpose of securing homesteads to actual settlers, and for educational purposes, as may be provided by law.[5]

Starting in 1871, Congress began granting specific railroads right of way through public lands, with no accompanying land subsidies. The passing of railroad-specific legislation ended with the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, generalizing the process to any qualified railroad.[4]:slip op. at 4[6] The 1875 Act's provisions for issuing new rights of way remained in effect until repealed in 1976.[4]:slip op. at 4–5[7]


In 1908 the Laramie Hahn's Peak & Pacific Railway Company acquired a right-of-way under the 1875 Act. LHP&P finished construction of a railroad along this right-of-way in 1911.[4]:slip op. at 6

In 1976 Melvin and Lulu Brandt received a land patent from the United States for 83 acres in Fox Park, Wyoming within Medicine Bow National Forest. The patent conveyed fee simple title to the land, with several reservations.[4]:slip op. at 5 One reservation preserved LHP&P's right of way, stating the land grant was:

SUBJECT TO those rights for railroad purposes as have been granted to the Laramie Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railway Company, its successors or assigns by permit Cheyenne 04128 under the Act of March 3, 1875, 43 U.S.C. 934–939.[8]:4

The railroad ultimately passed to the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad, who formally abandoned it (including the portion through Brandt's property) in 2004.[4]:slip op. at 7 The Forest Service proposed constructing what would later become the Medicine Bow Rail Trail along the right-of-way in 2005, and in 2006 the United States filed suit to quiet title to the right-of-way in its favor.[9] The United States resolved its claims against all land owners but Brandt along the right of way.[4]:slip op. at 7

Marvin Brandt (Melvin Brandt's son), represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, disputed the government's claim and filed a counterclaim on behalf of the family trust that owned the land. Brandt asserted that the railroad's right-of-way was an easement that had disappeared when the railroad abandoned it, leaving his land no longer burdened by the easement. The United States argued in response that the right-of-way instead reverted to the United States when abandoned by the railroad.[4]:slip op. at 7–8

In lower courts[edit]

The District Court granted summary judgment to the United States. It acknowledged a circuit split among the Ninth Circuit, the Tenth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, the Federal Circuit, and the Court of Federal Claims on the question of whether 1875 Act rights of way reverted to the United States on abandonment. The court, residing within the Tenth Circuit, then followed that circuit's precedent, ruling against Brandt and quieting title in the United States.[10]

On appeal the Tenth Circuit affirmed. The court of appeals also acknowledged the circuit split while adhering to circuit precedent.[8]

Brandt petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.[11] The United States in response argued that the lower courts were correct, but the Court should nonetheless hear the case to resolve the circuit split.[12]

On October 1, 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.[13]

Supreme Court[edit]


Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts held that the railroad rights-of-way granted under the 1875 Act are common law easements, which upon termination leave the underlying land unburdened.[4]:slip op. at 11–12

Roberts observed that the United States lost its case largely because it had successfully argued in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), that 1875 Act rights of way were easements. In that case Great Northern had wished to drill for oil and gas upon its right of way. At the Supreme Court, the United States argued that the language, legislative history, and subsequent construction of the 1875 Act confirmed that only an easement (which would not permit drilling) had been granted. The Court agreed with the United States.[14] Roberts declined to endorse the United States's "stark change in position".[4]:slip op. at 17

Roberts also observed that Great Northern "specifically disavowed" the characterization of 1875 Act rights-of-way as reverting to the United States on abandonment in Rio Grande Western R. Co. v. Stringham, 239 U.S. 44 (1915). (This case and Northern Pac. Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267 (1903), had been key precedents in the United States's argument.) The Court in Great Northern considered Stringham not "controlling" because the Stringham Court had seemingly made its decision without being informed of the policy shift from land subsidies to mere easements in 1871.[4]:slip op. at 10

Roberts went on to write that under well-settled property law, an easement disappears upon abandonment, and the land owner regains full use of his property. Therefore, when the United States patented land to Brandt subject to the railroad right-of-way, without explicitly reserving any interest in the right-of-way, it gave up any future interest in the railroad corridor. In this case, the railroad's easement was extinguished upon abandonment, leaving Brandt's land unburdened.[4]:slip op. at 10–11


Dissenting alone, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Court had misconstrued Northern Pac. Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267 (1903), and Rio Grande Western R. Co. v. Stringham, 239 U.S. 44 (1915). Where the majority argued Great Northern "disavowed" those cases, Sotomayor instead read Great Northern to hold that "the right of way did not confer one particular attribute of fee title."[4]:dissenting slip op. at 3

Sotomayor argued that the majority was wrong to analyze the rights of way under the common law. Instead she concluded that traditional common law terms acquire different meanings in the unique context of railroad rights of way.[4]:dissenting slip op. at 4–5

Sotomayor also disagreed that the United States's position contradicted its position in Great Northern, pointing to language in its brief in Great Northern that qualified its description of the rights of way as easements.[4]:dissenting slip op. at 7

Sotomayor in closing criticized the decision for "undermin[ing] the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation", noting that ensuing lawsuits "may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars" in rail trail-related takings claims.[4]:dissenting slip op. at 7–8

Subsequent developments[edit]

At oral argument neither the United States nor Brandt could say how many abandoned rights of way would be affected by a decision in Brandt's favor, due to the age of the rights of way and the distributed manner in which records had been kept.[15]:51–52,53 It is thus unclear how many new takings claims will be filed in response to the decision.

Assessments of the impact of the decision upon existing rail-trails vary. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has argued that relatively few existing rail-trails will be affected by the Court's decision.[16] Some states believe their trails will be unaffected.[17] Others remain uncertain about the decision's impact on existing trails.[18]

The Court's decision has also had impact beyond the rail-trail context, strongly influencing a proposed settlement in Texas litigation over railroads' allowing telecommunication companies to lay fiber-optic cable within rights of way.[19][20]


  1. ^ a b Leo Sheep Co. v. United States, 440 U.S. 668 (1979)
  2. ^ Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Roberts, 152 U.S. 114 (1894)
  3. ^ Northern Pac. Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267 (1903)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, 572 U.S. ___ (2014)
  5. ^ Cong. Globe, 42nd Cong., 2d Sess., 1585 (1872)
  6. ^ General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, 8 Stat. 482, 43 U. S. C. §§934–939
  7. ^ Federal Land Policy and Management Act, §706(a), 90 Stat. 2793
  8. ^ a b "United States v. Brandt, 496 Fed. Appx. 822 (CA10 2012) (per curiam)" (PDF). September 11, 2012. Retrieved April 2, 2014.
  9. ^ Jacobs, Jeremy P. (December 3, 2013). "PROPERTY RIGHTS: Wyo. man takes 'rail trail' fight with Forest Service to Supreme Court". Environment & Energy Publishing. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  10. ^ 2008 WL 7185272 (D Wyo., Apr. 8, 2008) (unpublished), reproduced at 10-56 in Petition for Writ of Certiorari.
  11. ^ "Petition for Writ of Certiorari" (PDF). March 22, 2013. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  12. ^ "Brief of the United States on the petition for writ of certiorari" (PDF). September 5, 2013. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  13. ^ "Docket No. 12-1173, Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust, et al., Petitioners v. United States". Retrieved April 12, 2014.
  14. ^ Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942)
  15. ^ "Oral Argument Transcript" (PDF). Retrieved April 10, 2014.
  16. ^ "What the Marvin M. Brandt Case Means for America's Rail-Trails". RTC TrailBlog. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. March 17, 2014. Retrieved April 12, 2014.
  17. ^ Aines, Don (March 30, 2014). "U.S. Supreme Court ruling would have no impact on Maryland rail-trail projects". Herald Mail Media. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
  18. ^ Uhlig, Keith (March 13, 2014). "Impact on state trails uncertain in wake of Supreme Court easement decision". Wausau Daily Herald. Wausau, Wisconsin: Daily Herald Media. Archived from the original on April 11, 2014. Retrieved April 10, 2014.
  19. ^ Ackerson Kauffman Fex, PC (April 8, 2014). "60,000 Texas Landowners To Benefit From Class Action Settlement" (Press release). Beaumont, Texas: PR Newswire. Retrieved April 12, 2014.
  20. ^ Moore, Sarah (April 11, 2014). "Land dispute suit filed in Beaumont nearing settlement". Beaumont Enterprise. Beaumont, Texas: Hearst Newspapers II. Retrieved April 12, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Christian, Hannah (2015). "Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States: Turning a National Asset into a Private Gain". Denver University Law Review. 92 (2): 363–398.

External links[edit]