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Oddo v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

May 20, 2019




         Before the Court in this property dispute is Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company's (“Union Pacific”) Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”) [Doc. # 54]. Plaintiffs filed a response, [1] and Union Pacific replied.[2] The Motion is ripe for decision. Based on the parties' briefing, relevant matters of record, and pertinent legal authority, the Court grants Union Pacific's Motion.[3]

         I. BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit is a property dispute between two landowners and Defendant Union Pacific.[4] The relevant properties are five adjacent tracts located in Seabrook, Texas. Of the five properties, three are owned by Plaintiff Stacey Oddo (the “Oddo Tracts”) and two are owned by Plaintiff John Burkland (the “Burkland Tracts”). Plaintiffs acquired all the relevant properties during and prior to 2007.[5]

         A single right-of-way, the Seabrook Industrial Lead, crosses all five properties. Ownership of the right-of-way has changed multiple times since it was conveyed in the 1890s. Most recently, Union Pacific acquired it in 1998. In August 2017, Union Pacific transferred its interest in the Seabrook Industrial Lead to the Texas Department of Transportation (“TXDOT”).

         Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit in Texas state court on September 16, 2017.[6]Union Pacific timely removed to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction on November 3, 2017.[7]

         In their Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Union Pacific lacked a valid interest in the right-of-way running over their properties to transfer to TXDOT.[8] Plaintiffs contend that the right-of-way through their properties was destroyed when one of Union Pacific's railroad predecessors demolished a railway station in contravention of the relevant right-of-way grants. Plaintiffs bring claims to quiet title and for declaratory judgment, seeking the right of way declared invalid and vesting full title in Plaintiffs.[9] Plaintiffs further assert a claim for trespass, alleging Union Pacific and its predecessors exceeded the permissible scope of the right-of-way by unlawfully granting underground easements to pipeline companies, and by granting leases or licenses to non-railroad third parties to occupy the surface of the easement.

         On April 17, 2019, after the close of discovery, Union Pacific moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs three claims.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, “[a] party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment on a claim or part of a claim is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Seacor Holdings, Inc. v. Commonwealth Ins. Co., 635 F.3d 675, 680 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)).

         A party asserting that certain facts cannot be genuinely disputed “has the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings and materials in the record, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine [dispute] of material fact.” See Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co. v. Cardona, No. 7:16-CV-448, 2017 WL 2999272, at *1 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 20, 2017) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). The moving party, however, “need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case.” Coastal Agric. Supply, Inc. v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 759 F.3d 498, 505 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005)). Instead, the moving party may meet its burden by pointing out “the absence of evidence supporting the nonmoving party's case.” Malacara v. Garber, 353 F.3d 393, 404 (5th Cir. 2003). If the moving party meets this initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to set forth specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial. See Brandon v. Sage Corp., 808 F.3d 266, 270 (5th Cir. 2015) (citing Bayle v. Allstate Ins. Co., 615 F.3d 350, 355 (5th Cir. 2010)). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).


         Union Pacific seeks summary judgment on Plaintiffs' three claims: (1) quiet title, (2) declaratory judgment, and (3) trespass. Union Pacific first argues the Court should reject Plaintiffs' attempt to have Union Pacific's right-of-way over Plaintiffs' properties declared invalid. Union Pacific contends that this attempt fails as a matter of law because the relevant right-of-way conveyances impose covenants, not conditions, whose breach cannot cause termination of the easements. Union Pacific further contends Plaintiffs' trespass claim is time barred because it was brought outside of the applicable two-year statute of limitations.

         Union Pacific's positions are persuasive. The Court therefore grants summary judgment on ...

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