Preseault v. United States Case Brief

Summary of Preseault v. United States, U.S. Ct. of Appeals, Federal Circuit (1996)

Parties: Preseaults are the owners in fee simple of land which railroad lines ran along. The United States created the Interstate Commerce Commission and instituted the Rails-to-Trails Act, which resulted in this suit. The state of VT also appeared as a joint DF (as per the joinder rules of the Court of Federal Claims).

Cause of action/remedy sought: The following is a legal action for conversion and for deprivation of federal due process rights.

Procedural History: Court of Federal Claims concluded the land was the government’s on summary judgment (after hearings and argument), ruling for DF. On appeal, this court reverses and remands.

Facts: Preseault owned land which railroad tracks were originally on (we assume under the permission of the owners). When the railroad shut down in 1970 and in 1975 removed its railroad tracks, the railroad never applied for an abandonment order as required by the Rails-to-Trails Act set for by the ICC. The railroad then entered into an agreement with the state of VT and city of Burlington that the latter would maintain the former railroad strip as a public trail, which was approved by the ICC in 1986. The ICC at that time also authorized the railroad to discontinue its service.

PL’s sued, claiming the Rails-to-Trails Act was unconstitutional. Supreme Court ruled against them. Now they bring suit claiming that the federal government, acting through the ICC, took their property when it authorized the conversion of the former railroad right-of-way to public use. PL claims the permanent physical occupation of the land by the government or the public is a taking of the owners’ property, DF denies liability under the 5th Amendment.

(as background the PL’s land encompassed three separate tracts of land, called A, B and C by the court, which were part of three different estates. A was the Barker Estate, B was from the Ireland parcel, and C was from the Manwell parcel. The RR crossing later used for nature trails runs across A and B along the dividing line, and directly through parcel C

Issue(s): Under Federal property law of the Rails-to-Trails Act and by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), does the conversion of a long, unused railroad right-of-way to a public recreational hiking and biking trail constitute a taking of the property of the owners of the underlying fee simple?

(a) did the RR acquire fee simple estates when it acquired the crossing land?

(b) if RR did indeed acquire easements, what were the terms of the easement (RR use limited or also for public nature trails)?

(c) even if the grants of the RR’s easements were broad enough to encompass nature trails, has these easements terminated prior to the alleged taking so that the property owners at that time held fee simples encumbered by the easements (was that the power PL’s acquired upon conveyance from a previous buyer)?

Holding: Yes. The RR only acquired easements upon the original conveyances, and the terms of those easements were for the use of the railway, not for public trails. These easements also ended at the time the railroad was ended in 1975, and further conveyance from the ICC to the state and subsequently the city was unauthorized under the 5th amendment without just compensation.

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: The court looked to the instrument in light of the surrounding circumstances to find the intent of the original conveyance. As for tracts A & B (C later), the land was considered an easement by the power granted to the RR by the state (eminent domain). VT case law holds when a RR for its purposes acquires an estate in land for laying track and operating RR equipment thereon, the estate acquired is no more than that needed for the purpose, and that typically means an easement, not a fee simple.

Tract C is based on a warranty deed (a deed warranting that the grantor has a good title free and clear of all encumbrances and will defend the grantee against all claims). The habendum clause in the deed, which described the limits and parameters of the estate, describe it as indefeasible and as a fee simple. However, further look to the circumstances surrounding the deed shows that a survey taken up by the railroad company which produced the deed’s parameters, indicates the RR only was surveying the plot of land it would need for its tracks and a crossing. Therefore, the intent leads the court to agree with the trial court that the instrument was for an easement.

As for the scope of the easements, an interpretation of the rule suggests there was only the intent to grant an easement to the RR, and not for the reasonably foreseeable use of a nature trail. A public recreational trail could be described as a roadway for the transportation of persons, but the nature of the usage is vastly different (trails: recreational; RR crossing: business). The intent of the original grantor and grantee does not lend to the possibility that the easement was for public use.

There is a further argument by PL’s, that the original easements were abandoned upon the RR removing the tracks in 1975. Under this premise, the US would owe money to PL’s as per the 5th amendment. VT law follows the rule that easements end when they are abandoned, but there must be a manifestation of such intent. The only intent manifested was to cease using the land for railroad purposes, and no intent had since indicated to revive the use of the easement for that purpose.

Therefore the actual taking of the land, pursuant to a federal organization, for use by the city to use the land for public use, when all other evidence suggests the land was abandoned, calls for compensation. The nature trail is 60 feet from PL’s door, and causes much inconvenience in the way of traffic, noise, and the inability to build its own right-of-way for travel from their home to the nearest public road.

Rule: “The scope of an easement may be…adjusted in the face of changing time (tempora motondo) to serve the original purpose, so long as the change is consistent with the terms of the original grant (can’t convey more interest in property than you have).”

Typically, the grant under which such rights of way are created does not specify a termination date. The usual way in which an easement ends is by abandonment, which causes the easement to be extinguished as a matter of law. (VT law recognizes not only the ceasing of the use of the property, but an actual manifestation of intent to cease using the property for such a purpose)

Did court avoid issues?: No.

Dicta: There are no VT cases on point describing the intent of a grant of easement to another party.

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