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Mauler v. Bayfield County

October 31, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 00-C-742-C--Barbara B. Crabb, Chief Judge.

Before Flaum, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Ripple, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Chief Judge


Douglas and Judith Mauler appeal the district court's finding that they hold no legal title or interest in a railroad right of way crossing their private property. The Maulers claim the former railway corridor was not a "right of way" subject to disposition under federal law and insist they have a valid reversionary interest in the land which has been unconstitutionally taken by Bayfield County. For the following reasons, we affirm the grant of summary judgment against the Maulers.


Douglas and Judith Mauler claim title to part of an old railroad corridor that crosses their private property. The 100-foot wide strip of land once functioned as a railroad operated by the Union Pacific Railroad Company *fn1 ("Railroad") and now serves as a public recreational and snowmobile trail maintained by the Bayfield County Tourism and Recreation Department. The Railroad ceased using the strip as a working railroad in 1978 and conveyed its interest in the land to Bayfield County by way of the Bayfield County Snowmobile Alliance in 1989.

When the Maulers purchased their land in 1994 and 1996, they took title "subject to and together with all easements, restrictions, reservations, and exceptions as may constitute or otherwise affect the chain of title to said premises" and "less any rights of way of record." The chain of title to the Maulers' land shows that the Railroad originally conveyed the parcel--expressly reserving the railroad right of way--to a John Canfield in 1884. Although the deeds explicitly reserved the railroad right of way and Bayfield County had been using the strip as a public trail for several years, the Maulers claimed exclusive ownership of the land. Resorting to self-help, they attempted to block public access to the trail by building a five-foot high wooden barrier across the path near its entrance to their private property.

After unidentified persons removed the fence and the Maulers rebuilt it, Bayfield County sued the Maulers in Wisconsin state court to resolve the title dispute. The state court found Bayfield County held a valid interest in the land and permanently enjoined the Maulers from blocking the trail. The Maulers then filed essentially the same lawsuit against Bayfield County in federal district court. Bayfield County chose not to raise the affirmative defense of issue preclusion and sought a ruling on the merits because it wanted to establish the legal status of the trail as it passed through private property owned by the Maulers and others.

The original land grants in this case were part of a major initiative by the federal government to aid and encourage private companies in the building of railroads across frontier lands. As Congress dispersed grants of public lands to railroad companies and settlers claimed the same public lands as homesteads, disputes arose regarding the nature of and property rights associated with the railroad grants. In what continues to be the controlling case on point, the Supreme Court characterized these railroad grants as "limited fee[s], made on an implied condition of reverter in the event that the company ceased to use or retain the land for the purpose for which it was granted." Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267, 271 (1903).

In 1922 Congress enacted 43 U.S.C. § 912, known as the Abandoned Railroad Right of Way Act, to dispose of the abandoned railroad lands to which the United States held a right of reverter under Townsend. Section 912 requires that public lands given by the United States for use as railroad rights of way be turned into public highways within one year of their abandonment or be given to adjacent landowners. *fn2 However, the National Trails System Improvement Act of 1988, 16 U.S.C. § 1248(c), modifies § 912 to the extent that now those lands not converted to public highways within one year revert to the United States and not private landowners. *fn3 In conjunction with § 912, 43 U.S.C. § 913 permits railroad companies to convey their public land grants to states, counties, or municipalities for use as public highways or streets. *fn4

The Maulers claim the United States did not retain a reversionary interest when it gave the land in question to Wisconsin in 1856 and 1864 "for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad." *fn5 They also contend that neither Townsend nor subsequently enacted federal laws, namely 43 U.S.C. §§ 912, 913 and 16 U.S.C. § 1248(c), apply in this case to create a reversionary interest in the United States because the original grant of land to Wisconsin did not use the exact words "right of way." Instead, the Maulers assert that they hold a valid reversionary interest in the strip which vested in them, as successors in interest to John Canfield, when the Railroad ceased using the land as a railway. They further argue that the Railroad's conveyance of the strip to Bayfield County by way of the Snowmobile Alliance and Bayfield County's dedication of the strip as a public recreational trail are both invalid.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court held that the former railway corridor was a "right of way" subject to disposition under 43 U.S.C. § 912, as modified by 16 U.S.C. § 1248(c), that Bayfield County properly acquired title to the strip from the Railroad pursuant to 43 U.S.C. § 913, and that the Maulers lacked standing to pursue their takings claim because they never held a valid legal interest in the railway corridor.


We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Summary judgment is proper only when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, we view all facts and draw all inferences in favor of the non-movant. Outlaw v. Newkirk, 259 F.3d 833, 836 (7th Cir. 2002). If the record as a whole "could not lead a rational trier of fact to ...

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