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    BRIMSTONE R. & CANAL CO. v. UNITED STATES, 276 U.S. 104 (1928)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    BRIMSTONE R. & CANAL CO. v. UNITED STATES, 276 U.S. 104 (1928)

    276 U.S. 104

    UNITED STATES et al.
    No. 240.

    Argued Oct. 10, 11, 1927.
    Decided Feb. 20, 1928.

    [276 U.S. 104, 105]   Messrs. C. R. Liskow, of Lake Charles, La., Wylie M. Barrow, of Baton Rouge, La., and James T. Kilbreth, of New York City, for appellant.

    [276 U.S. 104, 106]   Mr. Blackburn Esterline, of Washington, D. C., for the United States.

    [276 U.S. 104, 107]   Messrs. D. W. Knowlton and P. J. Farrell, both of Washington, D. C., for Interstate Commerce Commission.

    [276 U.S. 104, 108]  

    Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    Appellant seeks annulment of an Interstate Commerce Commission order, entered December 14, 1925, which designated the divisions it might thereafter receive from [276 U.S. 104, 109]   agreed joint rates and required readjustment of divisions received subsequent to August 1, 1921, when the investigation began.

    The court below dismissed the bill. Two of the objections to the order, there advanced, will be considered.

    (1) The Commission failed to investigate or determine the reasonableness or justness of the divisions, or whether they were unjust, unreasonable, inequitable, or unduly preferential or prejudicial, as between the carriers; also failed to consider whether the circumstances entitled one to a greater or less proportion than another of the joint rates, as commanded by section 15(6), Transportation Act 1920 (49 USCA 15; Comp. St. 8583).

    (2) The joint rates were agreed upon by the parties, and not 'established pursuant to any finding or order' of the Commission, within section 15(6), Transportation Act 1920. Consequently the Commission had no power to require adjustments for any period prior to the final order.

    Section 1(4), Transportation Act 1920 (49 USCA 1; Comp. St. 8563), directs common carriers to establish through routes, reasonable and equitable rates, fares, and charges; also to establish divisions of joint rates just, reasonable, and equitable as between the participants, which shall not unduly prefer or prejudice any of them.

    Section 15(1) empowers the Commission, whenever, after full hearing, it shall find any rate charged by a carrier is or will be unjust or unreasonable or unjustly discriminatory or unduly preferential, or prejudicial, or otherwise in violation of this act, to determine and prescribe the just and reasonable rate thereafter to be observed, and to make an order requiring the carrier to cease and desist from such violation.

    Section 15(3) provides that 'the Commission may, and it shall whenever deemed by it to be necessary or desirable in the public interest, after full hearing,' establish joint [276 U.S. 104, 110]   rates, 'and the divisions of such rates, fares, or charges as hereinafter provided.'

    Section 15(6):

    Appellant owns and operates a railroad ten miles long in southwestern Louisiana, is a common carrier of freight only, and makes interchanges with lines of the Southern Pacific1 and Kansas City Southern. Except five shares, its capital stock-$200,000-is owned by Union Sulphur Company, which operates mines near its line and consigns and receives over 90 per centum of the property moving thereon. Prior to 1920 appellant and connecting carriers established through rates and divisions by agreements. These were modified as permitted or suggested in Ex parte 74 (1920) 58 Interst. Com. R. 220, and Matter of Reduced Rates (1922) 68 Interst. Com. R. 676.

    In Ex parte 74, the Commission considered applications under section 15a,2 Transportation Act 1920 (49 USCA 15a; Comp. St. 8583a), for authority generally to increase rates so that carriers as a whole might earn a fair return. It found (July 29, 1920, 58 Interst. Com. R. 220): [276 U.S. 104, 112]   ... The following percentage increases in the charges for freight service, including switching and special services, together with the other increases hereinbefore approved, would under present conditions result in rates not unreasonable in the aggregate under section 1 of the act and would enable the carriers in the respective groups, under honest, efficient, and economical management and reasonable expenditures for maintenance of way, structures, and equipment, to earn an aggregate annual railway operating income equal, as nearly as may be, to a return of 5 1/2 per cent. upon the aggregate value, for the purposes of this proceeding, of the railway property of such carriers held for and used in the service of transportation and one-half of 1 per cent. in addition; Eastern group, 40 per cent.; Southern group, 25 per cent.; Western group, 35 per cent.; Mountain-Pacific group, 25 per cent. ...

    And it accordingly authorized general increases as specified 'in the rates, fares, and charges of railroads within the continental United States.' It did not approve or require the adoption or maintenance of any particular rate.

    In the Matter of Reduced Rates (May 16, 1922) 68 Interst. Com. R. 676, instituted to determine whether further general reductions might be required under section 1, also what would constitute fair return under section 15a(3), after referring to the authorized increases of 1920, the Commission found that 5.75 per centum would be fair thereafter and would result if formerly authorized rates were reduced by specified perentages. The order was that carriers should promptly report 'whether the [276 U.S. 104, 113]   findings herein will be carried into effect without formal order or orders by us.' It did not require the adoption or maintenance of any rate, nor was any particular rate approved.

    August 1, 1921, the Commission began 'an investigation into and concerning the justness, reasonableness, and equitableness of the divisions received by the Brimstone Railroad & Canal Company out of the joint rates applicable to the transportation of property.' It ordered:

    Testimony was taken relative to ownership and organization of the Brimstone Company; its relation to Union Sulphur Company; its operating and financial condition, including dividends, surplus, and character of service performed; volume of road-building material carried for parish purposes; establishment by United States Railroad Administration of divisions with connecting lines, with factors considered in connection therewith; comparison between the questioned divisions and those received by otehr lines in the same territory; also value of operating property, including cost of reproduction.

    The Commission's first report-April 4, 1922-declared the Brimstone Company a common carrier subject to the interstate commerce act entitled to participate in joint rates, or have its charges absorbed under appropriate tariff provisions, and further:

    The subsequent studies related only to the Brimstone Company; they did not extend at all to connecting carriers. The Commission (88 Interst. Com. R. 63, March 10, 1924) said they were 'intended to develop the average cost, including return on investment, of moving loaded cars to any from the Southern Pacific and Kansas City Southern.' No studies were made or evidence taken concerning efficiency of Southern Pacific and Kansas City Southern lines, amount of revenue required to pay their respective operating expenses, taxes, and fair return upon their property, or the public importance of services performed by them, or any other fact or circumstance (except as shown above) which ordinarily, without regard to the mileage haul, would entitle them to a greater or less proportion of the joint rate. Section 15(6).

    March 10, 1924, a second report and order prescribed what the Brimstone Company might thereafter receive [276 U.S. 104, 115]   from joint rates and ordered readjustment of divisions received after August 1, 1921. No change was directed in the joint rates or finding made relevant to their justness, nor was there any pronouncement concerning apportionments amongst other carriers. The Commission said:

    On December 14, 1925, a final report and order reaffirmed the order of March 10, 1924, with some modifications (presently unimportant) in amounts allowed the Brimstone Company from the joint rates.

    The Commission evidently undertook to deprive the Brimstone Company of receipts supposed to exceed a fair return on its property and award the same to connecting carriers without evidence tending to show they were in need or had or would receive more or less than a fair return from agreed divisions, or that the joint rates themselves were unfair and unjust, or that the agreed divisions were 'unjust, unreasonable, inequitable, or unduly preferential or prejudicial as between the carriers.'

    Counsel suggest that, in addition to facts revealed by studies of the Brimstone Company's affairs, the Commission did consider existing division sheets of joint rates, [276 U.S. 104, 116]   volume and distribution of traffic, past division sheets, divisions accorded to the Brimstone Company by the federal Director General; also testimony showing competition controlled the agreed divisions. But the very definite command of section 15(6) required more than that.

    Both parties rely upon New England Divisions Case, 261 U.S. 184 , 43 S. Ct. 270, and United States v. Abilene & Southern Ry. Co. 265 U.S. 274 , 44 S. Ct. 565

    The first involved an order granting larger divisions to New England roads. We there recognized the necessity of evidence 'typical in character, and ample in quantity, to justify the finding made in respect to each division of each rate of every carrier,' and declared that with such evidence before it the Commission properly proceeded to consider the importance to the public of the weak carriers and directed divisions intended to effectuate the purpose of Congress to insure adequate transportation service for the whole country, by extending aid to them. Nothing in the opinion supports the view that the Commission may take something from one carrier merely because its net revenue appears unduly large and donate this to another demanding nothing and not in need. Cost of service to one carrier is not the only factor to be considered in determining just divisions.

    In the second case the Commission undertook to modify existing divisions for the benefit of a weak road. It did not appear that any matters consideration of which was required by section 15(6), Transportation Act 1920, had been ignored, but the evidence concerning some of these things had not been properly presented and therefore the order was annulled. It was there said:

    265 U.S. 284 (44 S. Ct. 568): 'Relative cost of service is not the only factor to be considered in determining just divisions.'

    265 U.S. 291 (44 S. Ct. 570): 'The power conferred by Congress on the Commission is that of determining, in respect to each joint rate, what divi- [276 U.S. 104, 117]   sions will be just. Evidence of individual rates or divisions, said to be typical of all, affords a basis for a finding as to any one. But averages are apt to be misleading. It cannot be inferred that every existing division of every joint rate is unjust as between particular carriers, because the aggregate result of the movement of the traffic on joint rates appears to be unjust. These aggregate results should properly be taken into consideration by the Commission; but it was not proper to accept them as a substitute for typical evidence as to the individual joint rates and divisions. In the New England Divisions Case, tariffs and division sheets were introduced which, in the opinion of the Commission were typical in character, and ample in quantity, to justify the findings made in respect to each division of each rate of every carrier. A like course should have been pursued in the proceeding under review.'

    The record discloses that before making the challenged order the Commission failed to consider the items indefinitely specified by section 15(6). And it must be annulled.

    The court below gave special attention to the second of the above stated objections to the order. This relates only to the retroactive feature. And it approved what we regard as an erroneous view touching readjustments of past divisions announced by the Interstate Commerce Commission in several proceedings. Pittsburg, etc., Ry. Co. v. Pittsburg Co., 61 Interst. Com. R. 272, decided April 5, 1921; Western Maryland Ry. Co. v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 69 Interst. Com. R. 703, 707; New York Dock Ry. Co. v. Baltimore & Ohio R. R., 89 Interst. Com. R. 695; and Marion & Eastern Ry. Co. v. C. & E. I. R. R. Co., 96 Interst. Com. R. 402.

    Prior to 1920, the Interstate Commerce Act contained the following provisions concerning the readjustments of divisions of rates determined and prescribed by the Commission.

    [276 U.S. 104, 118]   'Sec. 15. That whenever, after full hearing ... the Commission shall be of opinion that any individual or joint rates or charges whatsoever demanded, ... are unjust or unreasonable or unjustly discriminatory, or unduly preferential or prejudicial or otherwise in violation of any of the provisions of this act, the Commission is hereby authorized and empowered to determine and prescribe what will be the just and reasonable individual or joint rate or rates, charge or charges, to be thereafter observed in such case as the maximum to be charged, ... and to make an order that the carrier or carriers shall cease and desist from such violation to the extent to which the Commission finds the same to exist. ... Whenever the carrier or carriers, in obedience to such order of the Commission or otherwise, in respect to joint rates, fares, or charges, shall fail to agree among themselves upon the apportionment or division thereof the Commission may, after full hearing, make a supplemental order prescribing the just and reasonable proportion of such joint rate to be received by each carrier party thereto, which order shall take effect as a part of the original order. ...' Comp. St. 8583.

    An explanation of the meaning of and reasons underlying that part of section 15 italicized above appears in Morgantown & Kingwood Divisions, 40 Interst. Com R. 509, 510:

    The occasion for the changes incorporated in section 15(6), Act 1920, were pointed out before the House Committee by Interstate Commerce Commissioner Clark, July 16, 1919 (House Hearings, Return of Railroads, etc., vol. 1, p. 29). He said:

    Reporting in behalf of the House Committee (November 10, 1919, H. R. vol. 2, Reports on Public Bills), Chairman Esch said:

    Section 15(6) should be construed in the light of the recognized difficulties. Under the earlier act a clear distinction was made between joint rates 'agreed upon' and those 'determined and prescribed' by the Commission after full hearing 'to be thereafter observed.' The Commission had power to declare proper divisions of those in the latter category by order 'which shall take effect as part of the original order'-that is, from the date the rate was prescribed. Whether it could determine divisions of agreed rates for the future was not clear; but certainly it could not require readjustments of divisions of such rates for past periods. Morgantown & Kingwood Divisions, 40 Interst. Com. R. 509; Id., 49 Interst. Com. R. 540, 551. Section 15(6) established the right to prescribe future divisions of agreed rates, but we think the studied purpose was to grant no power to require readjustments of past receipts from agreed joint rates. Theretofore power in respect of past divisions existed only when rates had been determined and prescribed after full hearing-that is, where the Commission had passed upon the reasonableness of the rate and required observance. Obviously a carrier may have [276 U.S. 104, 122]   assented to a through rate only because of the divisions accorded to it; to permit the Commission to change this arrangement as to past transactions would be exceedingly harsh, if not wholly unreasonable. Ordinarily, divisions of a particular rate are not of public interest, if the rate itself is reasonable. Probably aware of hardships under the old rule, the new act shortened the time during which readjustment might be required-limited its beginning to the commencement of investigation or filing of complaint.

    In support of the retroactive provision of the present order counsel say that joint rates between the Brimstone Company and connecting carriers were made under authority of Ex parte, 74, 58 Interst. Com. R. 220, and Matter of Reduced Rates, 68 Interst. Com. R. 676, and therefore were 'established pursuant to a finding or order of the Commission.' But mere general permission or suggestion concerning rates for all carriers, without consideration of the reasonableness of any particular rate, is not the 'finding or order' referred to by section 15(6). We think that refers to one which, after full hearing, determined and prescribed a rate thereafter to be observed. The contrary view would place substantially all presently existing rates in the class with particular rates established by order of the Commission after full hearing, subject them to retroactive adjustments, and thus destroy the practical value of the distinction which Congress carefully preserved.

    The power to require readjustments for the past is drastic. It may reasonably exist in cases where the particular rate has been approved by the Commission after full hearing; it ought not to be extended so as to permit unreasonably harsh action without very plain words. The general findings and permission of Ex parte 74 and Matter of Reduced Rates did not approve or fix any particular rate and certainly did not determine and prescribe the rates divisions of which are here under consideration. [276 U.S. 104, 123]   Neither case approved 'any specific rate as reasonable in itself or as properly adjusted with respect to other rates nor did it justify in advance any rate which might be published as a result thereof.' In them the Commission was dealing with the whole body of rates throughout the country-were looking at the general level of all rates-and the propriety of the rates to which the Brimstone Company was party was not the subject of particular investigation or consideration. See Morgantown & Kingwood Divisions, 40 Interst. Com. R. 511; Globe Soap Co. v. A. & S. Ry. Co., 40 Interst. Com. R. 121; Steel & Tube Co. v. Director General, 61 Interst. Com. R. 526.

    Section 15(1), Transportation Act 1920, authorizes the Commission, after full hearing, to determine and prescribe joint rates to be thereafter observed. Section 15(3) permits the Commission, after full hearing, to establish joint rates 'and the divisions of such rates, fares, or charges as hereinafter provided.' And section 15(6) authorizes readjustments of divisions already received only when the joint rate was established pursuant to a finding or order of the Commission. Such finding or order must have been under section 15(1) or (3), after full hearing in respect to the specific rate. This construction will insure compliance with the purpose of Congress by requiring the Commission, upon full hearing, to pass upon the particular rate before divisions for the past can be directed. Mere permission to increase or diminish all rates according to the general needs of carriers throughout the country is not enough.

    The decree below must be reversed. The cause will be remanded there for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.


    Mr. Justice HOLMES and Mr. Justice BRANDEIS dissent.


    [ Footnote 1 ] The lines of the Louisiana Western Railroad are part of the Southern Pacific System.

    [ Footnote 2 ] Transportation Act 1920, sec. 15a (added February 28, 1920). (2) In the exercise of its power to prescribe just and reasonable rates the Commission shall initiate, modify, establish or adjust such rates so that carriers as a whole (or as a whole in each of such rate groups or territories as the Commission may from time to time designate) will, under honest, efficient and economical management and reasonable expenditures for maintenance of way, structures and equipment, earn an aggregate annual net railway operating income equal, as nearly as may be, to a fair return upon the aggregate value of the railway property or such carriers held for and used in the service of transportation: Provided, that the Commission shall have reasonable latitude to modify or adjust any particular rate which it may find to be unjust or unreasonable, and to prescribe different rates for different sections of the country.

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