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CSX Transportation, Inc. v. City of Sebree

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 14, 2019

CSX Transportation, Inc., Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
City of Sebree, Kentucky, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: January 30, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Owensboro. No. 4:17-cv-00137-Joseph H. McKinley, Jr., District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Jennifer Parker Andrews, KING, DEEP & BRANAMAN, Henderson, Kentucky, for Appellant.

          Andrew E. Tauber, MAYER BROWN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Jennifer Parker Andrews, H. Randall Redding, KING, DEEP & BRANAMAN, Henderson, Kentucky, for Appellant.

          Andrew E. Tauber, MAYER BROWN LLP, Washington, D.C., Christopher J. Ferro, MAYER BROWN LLP, Chicago, Illinois, Rod Payne, BOEHL STOPHER & GRAVES LLP, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee.

          Before: COLE, Chief Judge; BATCHELDER and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          COLE, CHIEF JUDGE.

         In 1966, the City of Sebree, Kentucky (the "City") enacted an ordinance requiring CSX Transportation, Inc.'s ("CSX") predecessor to obtain approval from city council before commencing any maintenance or construction project that would result in any change in grade at any of the six railroad crossings in Sebree. After a dispute surrounding the ordinance in 1979, the predecessor railroad company and the City entered into a settlement agreement whereby the rail company agreed not to raise the height of one crossing by more than 0.4 feet and not to raise the height of another crossing at all. In 2017, CSX notified the City of its intent to perform maintenance that would result in raising four of the crossings, which led to the current lawsuit. CSX sought, and the district court granted, a permanent injunction prohibiting the City from enforcing the ordinance or settlement agreement. Because we agree with the district court that both the ordinance and settlement agreement are preempted by federal railroad statutes, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         An active railroad line runs through Sebree, a 1.6 square mile city in Webster County, Kentucky. The rail line, operated by CSX, crosses six streets in Sebree: Jefferson, Webster, Main, Dixon, Mill, and Sebree Springs. Each of the crossings is a "peaked" or "humped" crossing, meaning that there is a change in grade from the street to the top of the rails with the railway tracks sitting higher than the road. The height of the crossings has long been a source of concern for the City. According to the City, the elevation of the crossings creates two primary safety concerns: (1) line of sight obstructions for vehicles and pedestrians crossing the tracks, and (2) a risk that low-profile vehicles and vehicles with long wheel bases, such as trucks and buses, will become stuck or disabled. Understandably, the City does not want the height of the crossings to be raised any further.

         On May 11, 1966, the City enacted an Ordinance (the "Ordinance") requiring Louisville and Nashville Railroad ("L&N")-CSX's predecessor in interest-to obtain prior approval from the city council before commencing maintenance or construction that would result in any change in grade at any of the crossings in Sebree. The Ordinance imposes a fine of not less than $50.00 per day until the change is corrected.

         Despite the Ordinance, L&N raised the crossings at Jefferson and Webster in 1978 without seeking prior approval from the City. The City informed L&N of its intent to enforce the Ordinance if L&N attempted to raise the crossings at Main and Dixon. L&N thereafter filed a lawsuit in the Webster County Circuit Court seeking to invalidate the Ordinance and requesting an injunction preventing the City from enforcing it. The circuit court issued an order in July of 1979, denying L&N's request for an injunction and temporarily enjoining L&N from making any repairs that would raise the elevation of the Main Street or Dixon Street crossings without the approval of Sebree's city council. In November 1979, L&N and the City resolved the litigation by entering an agreed order of dismissal (the "Agreed Order") that removed the temporary injunction against L&N. Pursuant to the Agreed Order, L&N agreed not to raise the level of the tracks at Main Street more than 0.4 feet above its then-current level, and not to raise the level of the tracks at Dixon Street at all.

         Years later, CSX, as L&N's successor in interest, determined that it needed to conduct maintenance on the tracks in Sebree to correct the problem of fouled ballast. Ballast refers to the crushed rock used to support tracks and allow proper drainage. The ballast becomes fouled when smaller particles clog the space between the crushed rock, reducing the ability of water to drain freely. There are at least two maintenance methods that can be utilized to correct fouled ballast. One method, surfacing, entails lifting the track, which breaks the bottom of the ties-the supports to which railroad rails are fastened-free from the compacted fouled ballast, and then raising the track to the desired height and forcing ballast back underneath. Another method is undercutting, which is the removal of all ballast between the ...


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