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Marlow v. Malone

August 03, 2000

FLETA R. MARLOW, H. GLENN MARLOW, KATHRYN SRONCE, JANICE NIBLACK, DONNA LEVITAS, AND HAROLD W. MARLOW,
PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
V.
LAVERNE MALONE, SHARON MALONE, WILLIAM C. EDWARDS, AND BERTHA ALICE EDWARDS,
DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES, AND DARRELL MILLER, DEFENDANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of De Witt County No. 93L10 Honorable John P. Shonkwiler, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Myerscough

In May 1993, plaintiffs, Fleta R. Marlow, H. Glenn Marlow, Kathryn Sronce, Janice Niblack, Donna Levitas, and Harold W. Marlow, filed a complaint against defendants, LaVerne Malone, Sharon Malone, William C. Edwards, Bertha Alice Edwards, and Darrell Miller, asking the trial court to quiet title regarding a railroad right-of-way. In December 1998, the trial court dismissed plaintiffs' second-amended complaint with prejudice for failure to state a cause of action. 735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1998). Plaintiffs appeal, claiming that the trial court erred when it misinterpreted section 912 of Title 43 of the United States Code (section 912) (43 U.S.C. §912 (1994)) as not giving them title to an abandoned railroad right-of-way as adjacent landowners. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

In May 1993, plaintiffs filed a complaint, asking the trial court to quiet title to a railroad right-of-way in their favor. Plaintiffs' original complaint alleged that (1) from 1967, plaintiffs owned property west of the Illinois Central Railroad Company (ICR) right-of-way running through section 26 in De Witt County; (2) in 1986, ICR abandoned the right-of-way; (3) when ICR abandoned the right-of-way, plaintiffs became the fee simple owners of the half of the right-of-way lying west of the right-of-way centerline by operation of section 912; (4) in 1988, ICR purported to convey this right-of-way to William C. Edwards; (5) thereafter, Edwards purported to convey his interest to the other defendants; and (6) because plaintiffs owned the right-of-way, defendants were unlawfully possessing the disputed area. In July 1993, defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action.

In October 1993, before the trial court ruled on defendants' motion to dismiss, plaintiffs filed a first-amended complaint, alleging essentially the same claims outlined in their original complaint. In November 1993, defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' first-amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action. By the docket entry dated July 8, 1994, the trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss, stating: "For plaintiff[s] to sustain a cause of action, [they] must allege a fee interest in the abandoned right[-]of[-]way, which by [their] complaint [they have] failed to do" and that "[i]t is not sufficient to allege *** title to property adjacent to the abandoned right[-]of[-]way."

In August 1994, plaintiffs filed a motion to reconsider. After a hearing, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion to reconsider by docket entry dated October 7, 1994.

In November 1994, plaintiffs filed a second-amended complaint, alleging nearly identical claims as those asserted in their previous complaints. Later that month, defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' second-amended complaint. By docket entry of December 16, 1998, the trial court dismissed plaintiffs' second-amended complaint with prejudice. 735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1998). Plaintiffs filed a motion to reconsider in January 1999. In October 1999, plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to file a third-amended complaint instanter.

In December 1999, the trial court conducted a hearing regarding plaintiffs' motion to reconsider the dismissal of plaintiffs' second-amended complaint and plaintiffs' motion for leave to filed a third-amended complaint. After hearing arguments, the trial court stated that it "[believed] that the focus and the key to the issue [was] title" and that "under [section 912] *** if a right-of-way is abandoned for railroad purposes, the title [vests] in the person or the corporation, the entity who owned the land underlying or traversed by the right-of-way." The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion to reconsider and also denied plaintiffs' request to file a third-amended complaint with prejudice. Plaintiffs appealed.

B. Historical Background of Section 912

Plaintiffs claim title to the right-of-way by operation of section 912. Accordingly, we must review the background of section 912 to fully understand the issues.

In the second half of the 1800s, Congress began to pass legislation to encourage the expansion of railroads by offering rights-of-way across federal lands. Idaho v. Oregon Short Line R.R. Co., 617 F. Supp. 207, 210 (D. Idaho 1985). In the 1850s, Congress enacted bills that explicitly granted public lands to aid the construction of a cross-country railroad. Barney v. Burlington Northern R.R. Co., 490 N.W.2d 726, 729 (S.D. 1992); Act of September 20, 1850, 9 Stat. 466 (1850). Railroad lines were first built connecting southern states to Illinois. Barney, 490 N.W.2d at 729. Afterward, prompted by the California gold rush, Congress urged the railroads to extend into the western United States. Barney, 490 N.W.2d at 729. Against this 1850-60s backdrop, Congress' legislative initiatives included generous grants of land to accompany the rights-of-way along the transcontinental railroads. Idaho, 617 F. Supp. at 210. Congress granted the railroads additional land from the public domain for the rail companies to sell and, thereby, generate revenue to subsidize the railroad construction. Barney, 490 N.W.2d at 729. The right-of-way presently in dispute was located along one of these sections of land sold by the railroad to finance the rail system.

As railroad lines were further developed, consolidated, or rerouted, railroad rights-of-way were abandoned, leaving the use and ownership of the land questionable. Several court decisions emerged addressing the disposition of the lands within various abandoned rights-of-way. Specifically, in 1903, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the United States' right-of-way grants contained an implied reversionary interest in the federal government in rights-of-way eventually abandoned by a railroad. Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267, 271, 47 L. Ed. 1044, 1047, 23 S. Ct. 671, 672 (1903). Subsequently, in 1914, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that the Supreme Court's opinion in Townsend reflected Congress' intent that abandoned rights-of-way should revert to the federal government. H.A. & L.D. Holland Co. v. Northern Pacific Ry. Co., 214 F. 920, 923 (9th Cir. 1914).

As courts began to render these decisions, Congress recognized the inherent problems associated with regaining title to these narrow strips of land having limited use. State of Wyoming v. Andrus, 602 F.2d 1379, 1384 (10th Cir. 1979). Congress also recognized the confusion of having multiple laws addressing the disposition of these rights-of-way. Congress responded to the Townsend and H.A. & L.D. Holland Co. decisions by enacting section 912, effective March 8, 1922 (42 Stat. 414 (1922)). King County v. Burlington Northern R.R. Corp., 885 F. Supp. 1419, 1422 (W.D. Wash. 1994). The sole purpose of section 912 was to provide a mechanism by which the federal government could automatically divest itself of its reversionary interests in land originally granted for railroad usage. City of Buckley v. Burlington Northern R.R. Corp., 106 Wash. 2d 581, 586, 723 P.2d 434, 437 (1986).

C. History of Disputed Real Property and Right-of-Way

On September 20, 1850, Congress granted the State of Illinois a 200-foot-wide right-of-way through public lands in Illinois to construct a railroad from Cairo to La Salle, with a branch to Chicago and another to Dubuque. Act of September 20, 1850, 9 Stat. 466 (1850); State v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 246 Ill. 188, 197, 92 N.E. 814, 820 (1910). The United States also granted Illinois every alternate section of land for six miles in width on each side of the right-of-way to be sold to finance the construction of the Illinois railroad lines. Act of September 20, 1850, 9 Stat. 466 (1850); Illinois Central, 246 Ill. at 197, 92 N.E. at 820. The parcels of land granted to Illinois under this "checkerboard" land-grant scheme were designated with even numbers. Act of September 20, 1850, 9 Stat. 466 (1850). The right-of-way in dispute crosses the section of land numbered 26.

In February 1851, the State of Illinois incorporated the ICR to undertake the railroad expansion through Illinois. Illinois Central, 246 Ill. at 198, 92 N.E. at 820. In March 1851, Illinois Governor Augustus C. French deeded the land granted to Illinois by the United States to ICR, allowing ICR to construct the Illinois portion of the Chicago, Illinois, to Mobile, Alabama, cross-country railroad system.

The record does not reflect the complete chain of title to this land. Apparently, no United States patents conveying title to this land appear of record in the office of the De Witt County recorder either before or after the time of the 1850 statutory land grant. The conveyance immediately following the 1851 conveyance from Illinois to ICR is an 1853 conveyance by ICR of a portion of the land traversed by the disputed right-of-way to William A. Williams (Williams) which reserved the 200-foot right-of-way to ICR. The record shows the next conveyance as being a 1963 conveyance by ICR of another portion of section 26 to Henry and Robert Magill (Magills), which "[reserved] *** the right[-]of[-]way to the said Railroad Company 200 feet wide where the tract of said Railroad has been laid over the said land." In 1967, plaintiffs acquired the land lying west of the ICR right-of-way through the chain of title of Williams and/or the Magills.

From 1851 until 1986, ICR or Illinois Central Gulf Railroad (ICGR), a Delaware corporation and ICR's successor in interest, occupied and utilized the disputed right-of-way. Plaintiffs claim that, in 1986, ICGR applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for permission to abandon certain portions of its right-of-way. That same year, the ICC issued a certificate of abandonment, and ICGR ceased its use and occupancy of the disputed right-of-way. ICGR removed its tracks sometime during or after 1986.

In 1988, ICGR quitclaimed all its right, title, and interest to the original 200-foot-wide railroad right-of-way in section 26 to William C. Edwards. Between 1988 and 1994, Edwards engaged in various conveyances with the other defendants regarding this right-of-way. Because plaintiffs claim that they own the western one-half of the right-of-way by operation of section 912, plaintiffs claim that the conveyances to and among the defendants are void.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Requirements for Quiet Title Action

On appeal, plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred by dismissing their case for failure to allege facts sufficient to state a quiet title cause of action. "It is a fundamental requirement in an action to quiet title *** that the plaintiff must recover on the strength of his own title, although it is not required that a perfect title be established." Reynolds v. Burns, 20 Ill. 2d 179, 193, 170 N.E.2d 122, 130 (1960); Lakeview Trust & Savings Bank v. Estrada, 134 Ill. App. 3d 792, 812, 480 N.E.2d 1312, 1327 (1985). To prevail in a quiet title action, plaintiffs must establish title superior to that of defendants. Wilder v. Finnegan, 267 Ill. App. 3d 422, 425, 642 N.E.2d 496, 499 (1994). Moreover, where a plaintiff has no title in himself, he cannot maintain an action for quiet title. Ford v. Witwer, 383 Ill. 511, 514, 50 N.E.2d 714, 715 (1943); Lakeview, 134 Ill. App. 3d at 812, 480 N.E.2d at 1327.

Based on these precepts, the trial court determined that plaintiffs had alleged no title by virtue of deed or by operation of section 912. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed plaintiffs' second-amended complaint for failure to support a cause of action. We review a trial court's dismissal for failure to state a cause of ...


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