Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Jurisdictional Issue in Railroad Easement Case

In a newly issued opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts discussed whether the federal government or the Massachusetts Land Court had proper jurisdiction in an easement dispute involving a railroad. In Murray v. Dep’t of Conservation & Recreation (Mass. Aug. 4, 2016), the plaintiffs brought an action to quiet title, claiming that a railroad easement across portions of their lands was abandoned after the United States Railway Association (USRA) transferred rail lines from eight bankrupt rail carriers pursuant to the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (the Act). Since the rail line over the easement on the plaintiffs’ lands was not part of the reorganization, the plaintiffs contended that it was abandoned by virtue of its non-designation in the USRA’s final system plan. The Land Court concluded that the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) had exclusive and primary jurisdiction over the matter and that a certificate of abandonment from the STB was necessary before a state court could exercise jurisdiction over the parties’ dispute. The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the issue.

Generally, before any rail line may be abandoned, a certificate of abandonment must be obtained from the appropriate federal agency. Federal law expressly confers exclusive authority to regulate the abandonment of rail lines, with certain exceptions, on the STB. One of the exceptions to this exclusive authority developed when, in the early 1970s, eight major railroads entered into bankruptcy reorganization proceedings. Congress enacted the 1973 Act establishing the USRA and charged it with preparing a final system plan for restructuring the railroads into a financially self-sustaining system. The 1973 Act also authorized the abandonment of rail properties and easements, notwithstanding any provision of state law, the Constitution, or any administrative or judiciary decision.

In Murray, the plaintiffs argued that once the final system plan became effective, and the branch line at issue was not transferred, the rail carrier was free to abandon service and dispose of the branch line. However, the Court explained that the 1973 Act provided a procedure for discontinuance of service on untransferred lines under the final system plan, which required the rail carrier to give notice of the same in writing. Any property or easement over which rail service had been discontinued could only then be abandoned with additional notice, and within two years of the final system plan. In Murray, the Court found that there was no evidence that the rail carrier gave the required written notice of discontinuance or abandonment, or that the rail carrier had obtained a certificate of abandonment. Accordingly, the Court held that the question of abandonment of the line remained within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, and it affirmed the Land Court’s ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ action to quiet title.

If you have questions regarding your property rights, an informed real estate attorney can assist you in understanding the law. At Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts land use lawyers provide experienced representation to individuals involved in a variety of property cases, such as home inspections, closings and mortgages, building permits, and more. To discuss your real estate needs with one of our capable attorneys, call Pulgini & Norton at (781) 843-2200 or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Land Court Finds No Right of Way to Access Landlocked Parcel, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published April 25, 2016

Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Plaintiffs in Easement Case Against Gas Pipeline Facility, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published July 5, 2016

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