Massachusetts Property Owners File Title Action in Railroad Easement Dispute

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.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Murray v. Dep’t of Conservation & Recreation held that once the federal government starts regulating a railroad line, no state court may decide whether that line has been abandoned unless and until the appropriate federal agency has issued a “certificate of abandonment” or its equivalent.  Furthermore, only the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction for disputes over whether a certificate of abandonment has been issued or should have been issued. As a result, absent specific proof of federal authorization of abandonment, a plaintiff must take all questions concerning a railroad line’s abandonment status to federal authorities.

In the case at issue, the plaintiffs admitted that they couldn’t provide evidence of such authorization for the railroad line. The land court concluded that unless the party asserting jurisdiction can prove as a matter of fact that federal authorities already have approved the line’s abandonment, it has no jurisdiction to determine whether a federally regulated railroad line has been abandoned. Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiffs’ relief.

At Pulgini & Norton, our land use attorneys can represent individuals in residential real estate matters in Massachusetts.  We have advised people through the home purchase and sale process, permit applications, mortgage re-financing, and other transactions.  To learn more from one of our lawyers, contact Pulgini & Norton by phone at (781) 843-2200 or online and schedule your consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Homeowners Win Breach of Contract Claim Against Corporation in Property Dispute, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 5, 2016

Massachusetts Property Owners Object to Modification of Subdivision Plan By Developer, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published November 7, 2016

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