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November 23rd, 2016 — By — In Articles

Owners’ Counsel of America Files Brief in Inverse Condemnation Case before U.S. Supreme Court

The Owners’ Counsel of America (OCA) has joined together with other property rights advocates to file an amici curiae brief with the United States Supreme Court in an inverse condemnation case concerning the rails-to-trails conversion of an elevated rail line in New York to a public parkway.  

OCA joined the National Federation of Independent Businesses Small Business Legal Center, Cato Institute, National Association of Reversionary Property Owners, Property Rights Foundation of America, Citizen Advocacy Center and law professors Paula Franzese and James Ely, in filing the brief.  OCA Hawaii Member Robert Thomas and Cato’s Ilya Shapiro worked together as principal authors of the brief.

In the brief, the amici parties argue that words have meaning, especially when used in a document granting an interest in real property.  Further, amici urge the Supreme Court to grant review of Romanoff v. United States, 815 F.3d 809 (Fed. Cir. 2016) and reverse the lower court judgement.

The case involves the conversion of an abandoned elevated rail line to the High Line public park on Manhattan’s West Side. An easement was granted to New York Central Railroad by a previous landowner for the construction of an elevated freight line.  When the railroad abandoned use of the line, the City of New York converted it to a public recreational park.

The Romanoff family purchased the property after the original rail easement was granted.  When the railroad stopped using the line and the City began conversion to the High Line park, the family filed an inverse condemnation action in the Court of Federal Claims to obtain just compensation for the taking of its ownership rights. The Court of Federal Claims determined that the Romanoff family was not entitled to compensation because the railroad transferred its easement rights to the City of New York.  The Romanoff family appealed and a federal appellate court decision concluding that an easement granted to New York Central Railroad in 1932 for “railroad purposes” was broad enough to encompass future recreational use of the elevated railroad upheld the Court of Federal Claims decision.

In Romanoff Equities, Inc. v. United States, No. 15-5034 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 10, 2016), the federal appellate court determined that the words in the original easement “for railroad purposes and for such other purposes as the Railroad Company…may…desire to make” indicate that the easement was a “general” easement which allowed the railroad company to not only use the easement for rail transportation, but for any other use it desired. The Federal Circuit concluded that when the railroad abandoned the use of the line, the original landowner did not regain ownership.  Instead, the Court reasoned that under the “general” easement the railroad could transfer it’s rights in the easement to the City for use as a park.  The family then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the Court’s review of the federal circuit’s decisions in this matter.

The amici brief presents four arguments.

  1. Property rights are the basis of a free society and the foundation upon which all civil rights stand;
  2. Under the principle of judicial federalism the federal court should have asked New York’s highest court to decide the scope of the easement under New York law;
  3. The federal courts violated property law principles of certainty and predictability by concluding that the words in the easement for railroad use meant something other than what is written; and
  4. When a court of national jurisdiction considers a novel or unsettled issue of state law, the court should not attempt to guess how the state’s highest court would decide the issue, but rather certify the question to the state’s highest court.

Consult an Inverse Condemnation Lawyer with Owners’ Counsel of America

The eminent domain and inverse condemnation attorneys affiliated with Owners’ Counsel of America (OCA) represent private property owners in eminent domain litigation and property rights matters nationwide. If the government has taken your property rights, an OCA attorney in your state can help defend your legal rights. Contact us for more information online or call (877) 367-6963 for assistance.