Leo Sheep Co. v. United States


The US Government granted land to the US Pacific Railroad Company as part of the Union Pacific Act of 1862.  The grant was intended to jump start and sustain quick development of the transcontinental railroad.  The Act granted public/federal land as payment to the Union Pacific Railroad for each mile that was laid.  The federal government checkerboarded square miles and gave every other block to the railroad and reserved the remaining land as public land.  The Pacific Railroad sold the land to plaintiffs.  To the east and south of the property lies a river, which is used for public fishing and recreation.  It is virtually impossible to access the river without traversing the plaintiff’s land.  The government had received complaints that plaintiffs were not letting people enter their land to access the river.  After failed negotiations the government went ahead and paved a dirt road and erected signs across plaintiff’s land, for which they initiated this lawsuit.


Whether the Government has an implied easement to build a road across land that was originally granted to the Union Pacific Railroad under the Union Pacific Act of 1862.


“Where a private landowner conveys to another individual a portion of his lands in a certain area and retains the rest, it is presumed a portion of his lands in a certain area and retains the rest, it is presumed at common law that the grantor has reserved an easement to pass over the granted property if such passage is necessary to reach the retained property.  These right-of-ways are referred to as easements by necessity.”


The government’s argument that there is an easement of necessity is incorrect.  The rule of easement by necessity does not support the construction of an easement for the purpose of public use.  Moreover, the government has the power to rely on eminent domain – so there is no real “necessity” in constructing the easement.  Many cases have held that easement by necessity is not available to governments because their eminent domain rights and procedures already exist.

The court argued that the relevant inquiry was congressional intent in passing the Act.  The Act listed specific reservations within the Act, but failed to omit any right to easements.  While it may have been brought up in negotiation, it is presumed that the right of easement was left out of the Act because there was a presumed right to eminent domain use.  Importantly, the government has never been granted this right in any prior case where checkerboard land grants were at issue.

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