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Brandt Revocable Trust v. U.S. – the United States’ theory of land ownership derailed

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By: Erica Stutman

In Brandt Revocable Trust v. U.S., the United States Supreme Court held that abandoned railway rights-of-way that had been granted to railroad companies under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 left underlying landowners with property free of the rights-of-way, and the United States government has no interest in the abandoned land.

Pursuant to the Act, the government granted railroad companies the right to build railroads through public lands.  In large part, the government later conveyed the public land underlying the rights-of-way to private landowners by a land patent, which stated that the land was conveyed subject to a right-of-way for railroad purposes.

In this case, the government sought title to an abandoned right-of-way that ran through the Brandts’ property. The government claimed that the railroad company had been granted a limited ownership interest in the land for railroad purposes, and the land reverted back to the government upon abandonment of the right-of-way.  The Court ruled in favor of the Brandts, who were represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, finding that the government had granted only easements (the right to use another’s land) to the railroad companies, and landowners who purchased the underlying land from the United States held full title subject to the easement. Thus, upon abandonment of the easement, the landowners have title free and clear of the right-of-way.

The Court relied heavily on a case over 70 years old where the United States argued – and won – that railroads obtained only an easement under the Act.  In that case, the Court found that the Act’s language clearly indicated the conveyance of an easement rather than an ownership interest.  Further, the government’s land patent to the Brandts granted the land subject to rights for railroad purposes that had been granted to a railroad company without reserving to itself any interest in the right-of-way.

This case was a success for the Brandts and similarly-situated landowners, though the possibility remains that the government may still be able to obtain ownership to abandoned rights-of-way by exercising its condemnation power – the right of the government to take private land for public use if it pays “just compensation” to the landowner.  In that event, landowners would be entitled to monetary relief, but others would still have the right to use their land.

On a broader level, this case highlights the difference between a limited fee interest (where a grantor may retain a future ownership interest in land when it is no longer used for identified purposes), and an easement (where the grantor gives away a right to use land, and the landowner at the time of abandonment owns the land unencumbered).  Consequently, landowners must remember to be clear about their intent when conveying rights in land to others.