Today’s Supreme Court [Land] Patent Decision

by Dennis Crouch

Today the Supreme Court decided an interesting patent case in Brandt v. U.S. The patent at stake was a land patent that the Supreme Court here defined as “an official document reflecting a grant by a sovereign that is made public, or ‘patent.’”

The case involved an 83-acre plot in Wyoming owned by Marvin Brandt. The U.S. government originally owned the land as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  In order to expand rail-road coverage in the US, the Government offered a free right-of-way to RR builders. General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875.  In 1911, the Laramie Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railway Company (LHPP) took advantage of that offer and build a RR across the land that was later patented to Brandt’s.  Thus, in 1976, when the Brandt’s took fee simple ownership, that ownership was “subject to those rights for railroad purposes as have been granted to [LHPP], its successors or assigns.”  Finally, in 2004, LHPP (now part of Union Pacific) removed its tracks and expressly abandoned its right of way. 

The land patent itself did not specify what would occur if the railroad abandoned its right of way.  Similarly, the 1875 Act did not expressly indicate what rights the US retained.  

Here, the US Government wanted ownership of the land, or at least an easement to convert the railroad pathway to a trail for hikers and bikers.  However, Brandt argued that the abandoned easement merged into his fee title.  Both the district court and 10th Circuit courts sided with the government.

On certiorari, however, the Supreme Court has sided with the fee owner Brandt. In particular, the 8-1 decision finds that the 1875 statute provided only for a grant of easement to the railroad and that the 1976 patent grant by the U.S. to Brandt did not retain any further potential reversionary interest in the easement.  Thus, when the easement was abandoned, all rights merged into the fee and are owned by Brandt.

Of course, the U.S. can still obtain the land to build a trail — it will just have to pay just compensation under the rules of eminent domain and the Fifth Amendment takings clause.

WSJ has more here.

6 thoughts on “Today’s Supreme Court [Land] Patent Decision

  1. Seriously?

    The removal of my comment is astounding.

    Sure, it was geared to a certain individual – but the content was accurate, on point and deals with the pervasive problem of poor quality,um, ‘discussions’ on this board.

    C’est La Vie.

  2. To be clear, the decision was based on a form of collateral estoppel. In a Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262 (1942), the government had argued, successfully, that the RR grants under the 1875 Act were easements, giving the railroads no interest in the minerals (oil) discovered on the easement.

    “More than 70 years ago, the Government argued before this Court that a right of way granted under the 1875 Act was a simple easement. The Court was persuaded, and so ruled. Now the Government argues that such a right of way is tantamount to a limited fee with an implied reversionary interest. We decline to endorse such a stark change in position, especially given “the special need for certainty and predictability where land titles are concerned.” Leo Sheep Co., supra, at 687.”

    How the Government could have won in the district and circuit courts given 1942 case is beyond me. If ever there was a case where one position was completely without merit justifying the award of attorney fees against the losing party it is here.

    I would hope the winning small land owner would be made whole, either by the court or by someone in the government with a sense of justice and fair play.

    1. This case also reminds me of the ongoing case I’ve been reading about in California where the facts are nearly opposite, i.e., land is leased from the government according to clear terms, the lease expires, and the lessee (an oyster farm) complains about the “improvements” it made under the (unwise) assumption that the lease would be renewed.

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