The Massachusetts Land Court recently considered a July 11, 2017 real estate case, which involved a 19th-century railroad easement in the plaintiffs’ property. The easement at issue ran along the border of the plaintiffs’ property, and it was last used by the railroad in 1972. The railroad’s interests in the easement had since passed to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). When the DCR announced that it wanted to build a walking and biking path on the railroad easement, the plaintiffs filed a quiet title action in land court. The plaintiffs in the case sought a court order stating that their property was unencumbered by any easement or other right of use or entry derived from a former railroad easement.
Historically, the 19th-century statutes giving railroads the power to take private lands for railroad lines didn’t give them a full ownership interest in what they took. Instead, a railroad received only a permanent and exclusive easement in the taken land for as long as the easement served the railroad’s chartered purposes. Consequently, once the railroad no longer has a use for the property, the land reverts back to the current owners, free of the easement. The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the entire interest in the easement reverted back to them.
DCR initially tried to invoke sovereign immunity, a doctrine that prevents a private party from suing the state and its agencies (i.e., DCR) in most circumstances. However, in Massachusetts, the courts have ruled that the try title statute impliedly waives immunity with respect to actions for quiet title. DCR then argued that the plaintiffs had to prove the federal government authorized abandonment of the easement.