Court of Appeals 03.23.10

Well overdue for a new post.   The Court helpfully provides an opinion affirming a railroad-crossing closure in the Town of Lorain.  Perhaps to aid in my writing of an update/critique, the opinion is as atrocious as a correctly decided opinion can be.  I can re-write the opinion in 6 sentences:

The Town and Union Pacific agreed to close an at-grade crossing under Minnesota Statutes, 219.074.  Appellants argue that the Town should have vacated the road under Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 164, and awarded them just compensation through that procedure.  We find that 219.074 is the controlling statute in this case.  Appellant’s request for a writ of mandamus directing the Town to use Chapter 164 procedures was properly denied.  Minn. Stat. 219.074 does not contain a cause of action for compensation to nearby landowners.  Affirmed.

Clear, concise, and leads to predictable results in the future.  Instead, the Court decides to frame the writ request as moot, seizing on the appellant’s admission that the crossing was closed and would stay closed.  But this leaves the impression that if only appellants had sued earlier, the outcome might have been different.  That’s simply not the truth.  The Town used the correct procedure.  The outcome is the same no matter when the owners file their challenge.  Instead of simply saying that, and resolving the issue, the Court just invites someone else to try again.

The second half of the analysis is even worse.  Having found that ordering a road-vacation process under Chapter 164 is moot, the Court rubs salt in the wound by finding that the possibility of compensation only springs from – wait for it – the Town holding hearings under Chapter 164.  It’s not a compelling argument, and as noted above, it’s totally unnecessary.  The greater sin, again, is creating the impression that the outcome might have been different if appellants had just sued earlier.  In some cases decided on maddening procedural grounds, that might be true.  In this case, it clearly and unequivocally is not true.  There was absolutely no reason to dodge the merits in this case, but for some reason, the Court chose to do that.

It’s certainly not the case that we’re going to be overcome with a flood of at-grade rail crossing closure cases.  But we all have our part to play in making government more efficient, less expensive, and better for everyone.  Telling litigants, “gee, you should have sued earlier” when the answer is clearly “no, the Town did it right” is the exact opposite of those things, and it does impact operations and budgets at every level of government.

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