March 10, 2014Dennis Crouch
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.
This shows that a land patent, not a deed of trust, is the highest form of ownership.