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    OHIO VALLEY WATER CO. v. BOROUGH OF BEN AVON , 253 U.S. 287 (1920)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    OHIO VALLEY WATER CO. v. BOROUGH OF BEN AVON , 253 U.S. 287 (1920)

    253 U.S. 287

    OHIO VALLEY WATER CO.
    v.
    BEN AVON BOROUGH et al.
    No. 128.

    Argued Oct. 15, 1919

    Restored to Docket for Reargument Jan. 12, 1920.

    Reargued March 5 and 8, 1920.
    Decided June 1, 1920.

    Messrs. William Watson Smith, John G. Buchanan, and George B. Gordon, all of Pittsburgh, Pa., for plaintiff in error.

    Messrs. Berne H. Evans, of Harrisburg, Pa., and Leonard K. Guiler, David L. Starr, and Albert G. Liddell, all of Pittsburgh, Pa., for defendants in error. [253 U.S. 287, 288]  

    Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the court.

    Acting upon a complaint charging plaintiff in error, a water company, with demanding unreasonable rates, the Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania instituted an investigation and took evidence. It found the fair value of the company's property to be $924,744 and ordered establishment of a new and lower schedule which would yield 7 per centum thereon over and above operating expenses and depreciation.

    Claiming the commission's valuation was much too low and that the order would deprive it of a reasonable return and thereby confiscate its property, the company appealed to the Superior Court. The latter reviewed the certified record, appraised the property at $1,324,621.80, reversed the order, and remanded the proceeding, with directions to authorize rates sufficient to yield 7 per centum of such sum.

    The Supreme Court of the state reversed the decree and reinstated the order, saying:

    It considered those items and held that as there was competent evidence tending to sustain the commission's conclusion and no abuse of discretion appeared, the Superior Court should not have interfered therewith.

    Looking at the entire opinion we are compelled to conclude that the Supreme Court interpreted the statute as withholding from the courts power to determine the question of confiscation according to their own independent judgment when the action of the commission comes to be considered on appeal.

    The order here involved prescribed a complete schedule of maximum future rates and was legislative in character. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, 211 U.S. 210 , 29 Sup. Ct. 67; Lake Erie & Western R. R. Co. v. State Public Utility Commission, 249 U.S. 422, 424 , 39 S. Sup. Ct. 345. In all such cases, if the owner claims confiscation of his property will result, the state must provide a fair opportunity for submitting that issue to a judicial tribunal for determination upon its own independent judgment as to both law and facts; otherwise the order is void because in conflict with the due process clause, Fourteenth Amendment. Missouri Pac. R. R. v. Tucker, 230 U.S. 340, 347 , 33 S. Sup. Ct. 961; Wadley Southern Ry. Co. v Georgia, 235 U.S. 651, 660 , 661 S., 35 Sup. Ct. 214; Missouri v. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy R. R ., 241 U.S. 533, 538 , 36 S. Sup. Ct. 715; Oklahoma Operating Co. v. Love (March 22, 1920), 252 U.S. 331 , 40 Sup, Ct. 338.

    Here the insistence is that the Public Service Company Law as construed and applied by the Supreme Court has deprived plaintiff in error of the right to be so heard; and this is true if the appeal therein specifically provided is the only clearly authorized proceeding where the commission's order may be challenged because confiscatory. Thus far plaintiff in error has not succeeded in obtaining the review for which the Fourteenth Amendment requires the state to provide. [253 U.S. 287, 290]   Article 6, Public Service Company Law of Pennsylvania (P. L. 1913, p. 1429):

    It is argued that this section makes adequate provision for testing judicially any order by the commission when alleged to be confiscatory, and that plaintiff in error has failed to take advantage of the opportunity so provided.

    The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not ruled upon effect of meaning of section 31, or expressed any view concerning it. So far as counsel have been able to discover, no relief against an order alleged to be confiscatory has been sought under this section, although much litigation has arisen under the act. It is part of the article entitled 'Practice and Procedure Before the Commission and upon Appeal.' Certain opinions by the Supreme Court seem to indicate that all objections to the commission's orders must be determined upon appeal-St. Clair Borough v. Tamaqua & Pottsville Electric Ry. Co., 259 Pa. 462, 103 Atl. 287; Pittsburgh Railways Co. v. Pittsburgh, 260 Pa. 424, 103 Atl. 959-but they do not definitely decide the point.

    Taking into consideration the whole act, statements by [253 U.S. 287, 291]   the state Supreme Court concerning the general plan of regulation, and admitted local practice, we are unable to say that section 31 offered an opportunity to test the order so clear and definite that plaintiff in error was obliged to proceed thereunder or suffer loss of rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution. On the contrary, after specifying that within 30 days an appeal may be taken to the Superior Court (section 17), the act provides (section 22):

    But for the opinion of the Supreme Court in the present cause, this would seem to empower the Superior Court judicially to hear and determine all objections to an order on appeal and to make its jurisdiction in respect thereto exclusive. Of this the latter court apparently entertained no doubt; and certainly counsel did not fatally err by adopting that view, whatever meaning finally may be attributed to section 31.

    Without doubt the duties of the courts upon appeals under the act are judicial in character-not legislative, as in Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, supra. This is not disputed; but their jurisdiction, as ruled by the Supreme Court, stopped short of what must be plainly intrusted to some court in order that there may be due process of law.

    Plaintiff in error has not had proper op ortunity for an adequate judicial hearing as to confiscation; and unless such an opportunity is now available, and can be definitely indicated by the court below in the exercise of its power finally to construe laws of the state (including of course section 31), the challenged order is invalid.

    The judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania must be reversed, and the cause remanded there, with instructions to take further action not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Reversed. [253 U.S. 287, 292]  

    Mr. Justice BRANDEIS, dissenting.

    The Public Service Commission of Pennsylvania, acting upon complaint of Ben Avon borough and others, found, after due notice and hearing, that increased rates adopted by the Ohio Valley Water Company were unreasonable, and it prescribed a schedule of lower rates which it estimated would yield 7 per cent. net upon the value of the property used and useful in the service. The company appealed to the Superior Court, contending that the property had been undervalued and that the rates were, therefore, confiscatory in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. That court, passing upon the weight of the evidence introduced before the commission, found that larger amounts should have been allowed for several items which entered into the valuation, reversed the order on that ground, and directed the commission to reform its valuation accordingly and upon such revised valuation to fix a schedule of rates which would yield the net return which it had found to be fair. From the decision of the Superior Court the commission appealed to the Supreme Court of the state, contending that the Superior Court had in passing upon the weight of the evidence exceeded its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court sustained this contention, and, holding, upon a careful review of the evidence and of the opinions below, that the commission had been justified in its findings by 'ample testimony' or 'competent evidence,' and that they were not unreasonable, reversed the decree of the Superior Court and reinstated the order of the commission. Borough of Ben Avon v. Ohio Valley Water Co., 260 Pa. 289, 103 Atl. 744. The case comes here on writ of error under section 237 of the Judicial Code, as amended (Comp. St. 1214), the company claiming that its rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment have been violated: (1) because the Public Service Company Law, as construed by the Supreme Court of the State, denies the opportunity of a judicial review of the commission's [253 U.S. 287, 293]   order; and (2) that the order, which was reinstated by the Supreme Court, confiscates its property.

    First. The commission's order, although entered in a proceeding commenced upon due notice, conducted according to judicial practice and participated in throughout by the company, was a legislative order; and, being such, the company was entitled to a judicial review. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, 211 U.S. 210, 228 , 29 S. Sup. Ct. 67. The method of review invoked by the company under specific provisions of the statute was this: A stenographic report is made of all the evidence introduced before the commission. On a record consisting of such evidence, the opinion and the orders, the case is appealed to the Superior Court, which is given power, if it finds that the order appealed from 'is unreasonable or based upon incompetent evidence materially affecting the determination of the commission or is otherwise not in conformity with law' either to reverse the order or to remand the record to the commission with direction to reconsider the matter and make such order as shall be reasonable and in conformity with law. No additional evidence may be introduced in the Superior Court; but it may remand the case to the commission with directions to hear newly discovered evidence and upon the record thus supplemented to enter such order as may be reasonable and in conformity with law. From such new order a like appeal lies to that court. Act July 26, 1913, No. 854, 21-25 (P. L. 1913, pp. 1427, 1428); Act June 3, 1915, No. 345 (P. . 1915, p. 779). The Supreme Court construed this act as denying to the Superior Court the power to pass upon the weight of evidence; and the company contends that for this reason the review had does not satisfy the constitutional requirements of a judicial review. 1   [253 U.S. 287, 294]   Whether the appeal to the Superior Court fails, for the reason assigned or for some other reason, to satisfy the constitutional requirements of a judicial review, we need not determine, because the statute left open to the company, besides this limited review, the right to resort in the state courts, as well as in the federal court, to another and unrestricted remedy, the one commonly pursued when challenging the validity of a legislative order of this nature, namely, a suit in equity to enjoin its enforcement. See Louisville & Nashville Ry. v. Garrett, 231 U.S. 298, 311 , 34 S. Sup. Ct. 48; Wadley Southern Ry. v. Georgia, 235 U.S. 651, 661 , 35 S. Sup. Ct. 214. For section 31 (P. L. 1913, p. 1429) provides:

    Resort to suit for injunction is made easy in rate controversies like the present by section 41, p. 1432, in which it is provided that the penalties for failure to obey the commission's orders imposed by sections 35, 39, and 59, pp. 1430, 1431, shall not apply to an order declaring a rate unreasonable, if the tariff of rates actually charged is filed [253 U.S. 287, 295]   with the commission. The appeal provided for in sections 22-25 was under the original act also to the court of common pleas, but was changed to the Superior Court by the act of July 3, 1915.

    No decisions of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania construing section 31 of this act have been brought to our attention. The company contends, however, that the construction here suggested has been inferentially made untenable by dicta in St. Clair Borough v. Tamaqua & Pottsville Elec. Ry. Co., 259 Pa. 462, 103 Atl. 287; Pittsburgh Rys. Co. v. Pittsburgh, 260 Pa. 424, 103 Atl. 959; Klein-Logan Co. v. Duquesne Light Co., 261 Pa. 526, 104 Atl. 763. But the language relied upon was in each instance used by the court in making the point, not that the sole method of review was by appeal, as distinguished from a bill in equity, but that the function of the courts was to review only after the commission had in the first instance passed upon the case.

    Where a state offers a litigant the choice of two methods of judicial review, of which one is both appropriate and unrestricted, the mere fact that the other which the litigant elects is limited, does not amount to a denial of the constitutional right to a judicial review. The alternative or additional remedy in the present case was in effect an appeal on the law applicable to facts found below. It is in substantial accord with the practice u rsued in other appellate courts and approved in New York & Queens Gas Co. v. McCall, 245 U.S. 345 , 38 Sup. Ct. 122. It is true, however, that an additional or alternative remedy may deny the constitutional right to due process of law because of its nature or the course of the proceeding. See Iowa Central Railroad Co. v. Iowa, 160 U.S. 389 , 16 Sup. Ct. 344. And it is the contention of the plaintiff that because the Supreme Court did not weigh the evidence, but reinstated the order of the commission on account of there being substantial evidence to support it, the procedure was not a judicial review and denied it due process of law. The defendants, on the other hand, [253 U.S. 287, 296]   insist that the action of the Supreme Court, in reinstating the order, found not merely that there was substantial evidence, but, upon a full review, that there was ample evidence to support the findings, and that the order was reasonable. They contend that the course pursued by the Supreme Court in making such review was that customarily followed in Pennsylvania, both by appellate courts on appeals from chancellors and by trial courts on exceptions to reports of auditors, masters or referees ( Barnes' Estate, 221 Pa. 399, 70 Atl. 790); and they point out that the same method was pursued on appeal to the Supreme Court prior to the enactment of the Public Service Company Law, at a time when proceedings by consumers to secure reduction of water rates alleged to be unreasonably high were brought in the court of common pleas, subject to appeal to the Supreme Court (Turtle Creek Borough v. Penna. Water Co., 243 Pa. 401, 90 Atl. 194).

    The contention of neither party is in my opinion wholly correct. Both overlook the nature of the question of law which was under review by the Supreme Court. It is true that there was no statutory limitation upon the scope of its review; but it does not follow either that the Supreme Court weighed the evidence and found that the preponderance supported the findings, or that because it failed to weigh the evidence there was either a denial of due process or even a mistake of law. The questions of law before the Supreme Court were, first, whether the Superior Court had jurisdiction to weigh the evidence; second, whether in rendering its decision it weighed the evidence; and, third, whether the valuation of the plaintiff's property was so low that a rate based upon it would operate to deprive the plaintiff of property without due process of law, would confiscate its property. On each of these questions the Supreme Court found against the contentions of the plaintiff. It held that the Superior Court did not have revisory legislative powers, but only the power to [253 U.S. 287, 297]   review questions of law-in the present case, whether there was evidence on which the valuation adopted could reasonably have been found-and in so holding it acted upon the established principle applied in reviewing the findings of administrative boards, that 'courts will not examine the facts further than to determine whether there was substantial evidence to sustain the order.' Interstate Commerce Commission v. Union Pacific R. R. Co., 222 U.S. 541, 547 , 548 S., 32 Sup. Ct. 108, 111 (56 L. Ed. 308). It, therefore, reinstated the order of the commission. But it did not do so as an appellate court reviewing on the weight of the evidence findings of fact made by the Superior Court. It did so solely because the only question before it was whether there was substantial evidence to support the finding of value; for if the valuation was legally arrived at, the order was confessedly reasonable. Interstate Commerce Commission v. Union Pacific R. R. Co., supra; San Diego Land & Town Co. v. Jasper, 189 U.S. 439, 441 , 442 S., 23 Sup. Ct. 571. The presumption created by section 23, P. L. p. 1427, by which an order of the commission is made prima facie evidence of its reasonableness is in no sense a limitation upon the scope of the review. It is in effect the presumption which this court has declared to exist i rate cases, independently of statute, in favor of the conclusion of an experienced administrative body reached after a full hearing. Darnell v. Edwards, 244 U.S. 564, 569 , 37 S. Sup. Ct. 701.

    Second. As the company had the opportunity for a full judicial review through a suit in equity for an injunction, as it was not denied due process by disregard in the proceedings actually taken of the essentials of judicial process, and since it is clear that the findings of the commission were supported by substantial evidence, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania must be affirmed, unless, as contended, the claim of confiscation compels this court to decide, upon the weight of the evidence, whether or not its property has been undervalued, or unless some error in law is shown. [253 U.S. 287, 298]   The case is here on writ of error to a state court. It is settled that in such cases we accept the facts as there found, not only in actions at law (Dower v. Richards, 151 U.S. 658 , 14 Sup. Ct. 452), but also where, as in chancery, the record contains all the evidence and it was open for consideration by and actually passed upon by the highest court of the state (Egan v. Hart, 165 U.S. 188 , 17 Sup. Ct. 300; Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, 212 U.S. 86, 107 , 29 S. Sup. Ct. 220). And this is true, although the existence of a federal question depends upon the determination of the issue of fact, and although the finding of fact will determine whether or not there has been a taking of property in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Minnesota, 193 U.S. 53, 65 , 24 S. Sup. Ct. 396. This court may, of course, upon writ of error to a state court 'examine the entire record, including the evidence, to determine whehter what purports to be a finding' upon questions of fact is 'so involved with and dependent upon questions of federal law as to be really a decision' of the latter. Kansas City Southern Co. v. Albers Commission Co., 223 U.S. 573 , 591-593, 32 Sup. Ct. 316, 320 (56 L. Ed. 556); Cedar Rapids Gaslight Co. v. Cedar Rapids, 223 U.S. 655, 658 , 32 S. Sup. Ct. 389; Graham v. Gill, 223 U.S. 643, 645 , 32 S. Sup. Ct. 396. But in order that such examination may be required or be permissible, its purpose must not be to pass upon the relative weight of conflicting evidence ( Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. v. Fairchild, 224 U.S. 510, 528 , 32 S. Sup. Ct. 535) and to substitute the judgment therein of this court for that of the lower court, but to ascertain whether a finding was unsupported by evidence, or whether evidence was properly admitted or excluded, or whether in some other way a ruling was involved which is within the appellate jurisdiction of this court (Northern Pacific Railway v. North Dakota, 236 U.S. 585, 593 , 35 S. Sup. Ct. 429, L. R. A. 1917F, 1148, Ann. Cas. 1916A, 1; Norfolk & Western Railway v. West Virginia, 236 U.S. 605 , 35 Sup. Ct. 437).

    Here, it is clear, there was substantial evidence to support the findings of the commission; and no adequate reason is shown for declining to accept as conclusive the [253 U.S. 287, 299]   facts found by the state tribunals. See Portland Railway Light & Power Co. v. Oregon Railroad Commission, 229 U.S. 397 , 33 Sup. Ct. 820; Miedreich v. Lauenstein, 232 U.S. 236 , 34 Sup. Ct. 309. The rates are predicated on the company's earning 7 per cent. net on the value of its property used and useful in the service, after deducting from the income all expenses and charges for depreciation. It is conceded that 7 per cent. is a fair return upon the investment, and it is not contended that any erroneous rule has been applied in ascertaining the expenses of operation or the depreciation charges. The claim that the rates are confiscatory rested wholly on the contention that the property was undervalued; and on that question the contention is that the court failed to give due wi ght to the evidence adduced by the company and that the processes by which the commission arrived at the value it fixed differed from that often pursued by courts and administrative bodies. To this the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania said:

    The objections to the valuation made by the company raise no question of law but concern pure matters of fact; and the finding of the commission, affirmed by the highest court of the state, is conclusive upon this court. The case at bar is wholly unlike Great Northern Railway v. Minnesota, 238 U.S. 340 , 35 Sup. Ct. 753, and Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Missouri, 248 U.S. 67 , 39 Sup. Ct. 24, where this court reversed the judgments as matter of law upon the facts found by the commission.

    In my opinion the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania should be affirmed.

    Mr. Justice HOLMES and Mr. Justice CLARKE concur in this dissent.

    Footnotes

    [ Footnote 1 ] In Napa Valley Electric Co. v. Railway Commissioners, 251 U.S. 366 , 40 Sup. Ct. 174, 64 L. Ed. --, this court had before it in section 67 of the Public Utilities Act of California (St. Extra Sess. 1911, p. 55) a procedure substantially similar to that provided by sections 21-25 of the Pennsylvania act set forth above. The court strongly intimated, if it did not decide, that under the provisions of the act the mere denial of a petition to the Supreme Court of the state for a writ of certiorari amounted to an adequate judicial determination of the petitioner's rights.

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