United States v. Delaware, L. & WR Co. , 238 U.S. 516 ( 1915 )

  • 238 U.S. 516 (1915)


    No. 517.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued December 9, 10, 1914.
    Decided June 21, 1915.

    *523 Mr. Assistant to the Attorney General Todd and Mr. Solicitor General Davis for the United States.

    Mr. William S. Jenney for appellee Railroad Company and Mr. John G. Johnson for appellee Coal Company.

    *525 MR. JUSTICE LAMAR, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The Commodity Clause of the Hepburn Act was intended to prevent railroads from occupying the dual and inconsistent positions of public carrier and private shipper; and, in order to separate the business of transportation from the business of selling, that statute made it unlawful for railroads to transport in interstate commerce any coal in which the company had "any interest, direct or indirect."[1]United States v. Delaware & Hudson, 213 U.S. 415; Delaware &c. R.R. v. United States, 231 U.S. 363, 371.

    As will be seen from the statement of facts, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company was at the time of the passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906, one of the great coal roads engaged in the fourfold business of mining, buying, transporting and selling coal. As the Commodity Clause made it unlawful to transport its own coal to market, the Railway Company decided to adopt a plan by which to divest itself of title after it had *526 been mined but before transportation began. It thereupon caused a Coal Company to be incorporated having stockholders and officers in common with the Railroad Company. The two corporations, thus having a common management, then made a contract — prepared by the Railroad Company — under which the Railroad Company did not go out of the mining and selling business, but when the coal was brought to the surface the Railroad Company lost title by a sale to the Coal Company f.o.b. the mines and instantly regained possession as carrier. It retained that possession until delivery to the Coal Company, which subsequently paid therefor at the contract price.

    The District Court held that it was illegal for the same person to own a majority of the stock in the two corporations and that their contract of sale was lawful.

    From the decree, dismissing the Bill, the Government appealed to this court where much of the argument was directed to the question as to whether the fact that the two corporations had practically the same shareholders left the Railroad Company in a position where it could lawfully transport coal which it had sold at the mouth of the mine to the Coal Company.

    1. But mere stock ownership by a Railroad, or by its stockholders, in a producing Company cannot be used as a test by which to determine the legality of the transportation of such Company's coal by the interstate carrier. For, when the Commodity Clause was under discussion, attention was called to the fact that there were a number of the anthracite roads which at that time owned stock in coal companies. An amendment was then offered which, if adopted, would have made it unlawful for any such Road to transport coal belonging to such Company. The amendment, however, was voted down; and, in the light of that indication of Congressional intent, the Commodity Clause was construed to mean that it was not necessarily *527 unlawful for a railroad company to transport coal belonging to a Corporation in which the Road held stock. United States v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 414. For a stronger reason, it would not necessarily be illegal for the Road to transport coal belonging to a Corporation whose stock was held by those who owned the stock of the Railroad Company.

    Nevertheless, the Commodity Clause, of the Hepburn Act of 1906, rendered unlawful many transactions which prior to that time had been expressly authorized by the statutes of the States which had chartered the Coal Roads. And, while the Hepburn Act provided that, in the future, interstate railroads should not occupy the dual position of carrier and shipper, there was, of course, no intent on the part of Congress to confiscate property or to destroy the interest of the stockholders. But, still, upon adoption of the Commodity Clause, this appellee Railroad was confronted with a difficult situation. To shut down the mines, because the coal could not be transported, would have meant not only a vast monetary loss to the Company and its stockholders, but would have been even more harmful to the interests of the public which required a constant supply of fuel. The character of coal property was such as to make it impossible to divide the same in kind among the railroad stockholders, while the value of the coal land was so great as to make it impracticable to find a purchaser in ordinary course of trade. It was, therefore, natural, if not necessary, to organize a corporation with which a contract could be made, and out of cash received or stock issued to pay for or preserve the equity which the railroad shareholders had in the coal.

    In this situation there may have been no impropriety in the Railroad Company taking the preliminary steps of organizing such a corporation. Neither was it illegal for the stockholders of the Railroad Company to take stock in the Coal Company, for there are many instances *528 in which the law recognizes that there may be diversity of corporate interest even when there is an identity of corporate members. A city and the county, in which it is located, may both have the same population but different corporate interests. Many private corporations have both stockholders and officers in common, yet they may nevertheless make contracts which will bind both of the separate entities. But whenever two such companies, thus owned or managed, make contracts which affect the interest of minority stockholders, or of third persons, or of the public the fact of their unity of management must be considered in testing the validity and bona fides of the contracts under review.

    2. That principle is to be specially borne in mind in the present case. For this is not an instance of a Coal Road and a Coal Company, both of which existed and had made contracts prior to the Commodity Clause; — but a case where a Coal Company was created with the express purpose that, with stockholders in common, it should be a party to a contract intended to enable the Railroad Company to meet the requirements of the Commodity Clause and at the same time continue the business of buying, mining, selling and transporting coal.

    It is also to be noted that the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company did not part with title to its coal lands, mines and mining machinery as seems to have been done, on terms not fully stated [United States v. Delaware & Hudson, 213 U.S. 366, 398 (5), 392], in some of the instances discussed in the Commodity Cases. In them the ownership of the mines had passed completely from the railroads to the producing companies and the coal property was no longer subject to the debts of the railroad companies. After such sale of the coal lands there was both a technical and a practical separation of the legal interest of the two corporations in the coal under the ground, on the surface, when it was transported, and *529 when it was sold. The fact that the Railroad held stock in the producing company, and received dividends thereon, did not give to the Railroad Company, any more than to any other stockholder in any other corporation, a legal interest in the property of the Coal Company. Nor would the fact that the Railroad Company had once owned it, have made any difference, if, — by a normal and bona fide sale at the point of production, — the carrier had lost all power of control and all right, title and interest in the coal before the transportation began. United States v. Delaware & Hudson, 213 U.S. 413, top.

    3. But the decisions construing the statute, recognize that one corporation can be an agent for another corporation and that by means of stock ownership one of such companies may be converted into a mere agent or instrumentality of the other. United States v. Lehigh Valley R.R., 220 U.S. 257, 273. And, this use of one by the other — or this power of one over the other — does not depend upon control by virtue of the fact that stock therein is held by the Railroad Company or by its shareholders. For dominance of the Coal Company may be secured by a carrier (New Haven R.R. v. Int. Com. Comm., 200 U.S. 363) not only by an express contract of agency, but by any contract which in its practical operation gives to the Railroad Company a control or an "interest, direct or indirect" in the coal sold, at the mouth of the mines.

    Assuming then that the incorporation and organization of the Coal Company under the auspices of the Railroad Company was legal; assuming that the election of railroad officers as the first managers of the Coal Company was not illegal; assuming that as officers of the Railroad they could contract with themselves as officers of the Coal Company; assuming that at the time of organization it was not unlawful for the Railroad Company and the Coal Company, not only to have officers but offices in common, and finally assuming that all these *530 facts together did not, in and of themselves, establish an identity of corporate interest, still these facts taken together are most significant. They at least prove that the relation between the parties was so friendly that they were not trading at arm's length. And the further fact that one of the parties was under a statutory disability as to hauling coal makes it necessary to carefully scrutinize their arrangement in order to determine whether it was a bona fide and lawful contract of sale, or a means by which the Railroad though parting with the legal title retained an interest and control in what had been sold.

    4. That contract is published in full in 213 Fed. Rep. 255-259. The provisions material in the present inquiry may be thus summarized:

    (a) The Railroad Company agreed to sell and the Coal Company agreed to buy all of the coal mined or acquired by the Railroad Company during the continuance of the contract; (b) the price for the more important commercial grades was to be 65 per cent. of the New York price on the day of delivery; (c) the amount of coal to be sold and delivered was at the absolute option of the Railroad Company as its interests might determine; (d) the Coal Company was not to buy coal from any other person or corporation without the written consent of the Railroad Company; (e) the Coal Company was to conduct the selling of the coal so as best to conserve the interests, good-will and markets of the coal mined by the Railroad Company; (f) the Coal Company was to continue to fill the orders of present responsible customers of the Railroad Company, even if some of such sales might be unprofitable; (g) the Railroad leased to the Coal Company all of its trestles, docks and shipping facilities at a rental of 5 per cent. of their value; (h) the contract could be terminated by either party on giving six months' notice.

    *531 The most cursory examination of the contract shows that — while it provides for the sale of coal before transportation begins — it is coupled with onerous and unusual provisions which make it difficult to determine the exact legal character of the agreement. If it amounted to a Sales Agency the transportation was illegal because the Railroad Company could not haul coal which it was to sell in its own name or through an agent. If the contract was in restraint of trade it was void because in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. The validity of the contract cannot be determined by consideration of the single fact that it did provide for a sale. It must be considered as a whole and in the light of the fact that the sale at the mine, was but one link in the business of a Railroad engaged in buying, mining, selling and transporting coal.

    5. By virtue of the fact that the Railroad Company bought, mined and sold, it — like any other dealer — was interested in maintaining prices, since the contract did not fix a definite sum to be paid for all of the coal sold, but provided that the Railroad Company was to receive 65 per cent. of the New York price on the day the coal was loaded into the cars. The higher the rate in New York the better for the seller. And, by the contract, the Railroad reserved a power which, when exercised, could not only curtail production but shipments. Thus by decreasing the amount transported the supply in New York could be lessened. This would tend to raise New York prices and thus increase the sum the Railroad was to receive.

    The Railroad Company was in the business of selling, and it is not to be presumed that its power to limit deliveries or to prevent the Coal Company from obtaining coal elsewhere would be often exercised. Yet the power did exist and it was reserved for some purpose — not, as argued, to prevent controversy as to failure to deliver *532 in cases of strikes or accidents, for such is not the language or intent of the contract. Nor is room left for the implication [necessary to the validity of such an exclusive contract, Chicago &c. R.R. v. Pullman, 139 U.S. 80 (3), 89, 90], that the seller would deliver reasonable amounts at reasonable times. All such defensive arguments are excluded by the express and emphatic terms of the contract that "the amount of coal to be so delivered and sold to the buyer by the seller shall be at the absolute option of the seller as its interests may determine, and the seller shall be subject to no liability whatsoever for failure to supply the buyer with such amount of coal as it may desire."

    It might be said that if such a power was exercised the Coal Company could then go into the market and purchase from other coal dealers. But this contract deprives the buyer even of that ordinary business privilege, declaring that the Coal Company "will purchase all coal to be sold by it from the seller, and will purchase no coal from any other person or corporation, except with the written consent of the seller."

    6. Reading these two clauses together, it is evident that the Coal Company was neither an independent buyer nor a free agent. It was to handle nothing except the Railroad's coal and was the instrument through which the Railroad sold all its product. The Coal Company, though incorporated to do a general coal business, was dependent solely upon the Railroad for the amount it could procure and sell and was absolutely excluded from the right to purchase elsewhere without the consent of the Railroad Company, which, however, was under no corresponding obligation to supply any definite amount at any definite date.

    Restrictive contracts should at least be reciprocal and mutual — for if A is bound to purchase only from B the latter should certainly be bound to furnish what A wishes to buy [Chicago &c. R.R. v. Pullman, 139 U.S. 80 *533 (3), 89, 90] — especially is this true when the subject of the contract is an article in which the public is interested. Even at common law, in passing upon the validity of contracts in restraint of trade, the "public welfare is first considered, and if it be not involved, and the restraint upon one party is not greater than protection to the other party requires the contract may be sustained." Gibbs v. Baltimore Consolidated Gas Co., 130 U.S. 396, 409; Fowle v. Park, 131 U.S. 97.

    In this case the subject of the contract was anthracite coal — an article of public necessity and of limited supply, one-tenth being controlled by the appellee. The Railroad Company might have justly insisted on contract provisions intended to secure payment for all that it produced. But going beyond what was required for its own protection, it restrained the Coal Company from buying from anyone else, and, — what is probably more significant in this case — thereby prohibited the Coal Company from competing with the Railroad Company for the purchase of coal mined on the Railroad lines. And, this was not a mere perfunctory provision, because the Railroad Company was a buyer of coal and purchased 1,500,000 tons per annum from mines on its system. By this contract it excluded from that market the Coal Company, which, with its capital of $6,000,000, could have been a strong competitor. Such a provision may not have actually effected a monopoly. But considering the financial strength of the carrier; its control of the means of transportation; its powers to fix the time when transportation of the very coal sold was to begin; its power in furnishing cars to favor those from whom it bought or to whom it sold — such a contract would undoubtedly have that tendency. In that respect it was opposed to that policy of the law, which was the underlying reason for the adoption of the Commodity Clause. New Haven R.R. v. Int. Com. Comm., 200 U.S. 373.

    *534 7. There is another provision of the contract which shows that the Railroad had such an interest in the coal as enabled it to dictate to whom it should be sold, even at unprofitable prices. The agreement provides:

    "Sixth. The buyer agrees that it will conduct the business of selling the coal of the seller in such manner as best to conserve the interests of and preserve the good will and markets of the coal mined by the seller, and to continue to fill the orders of all responsible present customers of the seller even though as to some of such customers the sales may be unprofitable, it being understood and agreed that at the prices above quoted the entire business of the buyer will be conducted at a profit."

    This is not a mere stipulation that the Coal Company would not injure the reputation of the Railroad Company's coal; while the further provision that the Coal Company would `continue to fill the orders of all responsible present customers, even though some of such sales might be unprofitable,' was a further indication of the fact that both parties recognized the Railroad had an interest in the coal and used the Coal Company to preserve and secure that interest even after transportation began.

    The unusual, onerous and restrictive terms imposed by this contract may, as between the parties, have been negligible — certainly so as long as the stockholders remained the same, since a loss to the Coal Company would be presumably represented by a gain to the Railroad Company. But the Commodity Clause and the Anti-Trust Act are not concerned with the interest of the parties but with the interest of the public and it, therefore, makes no difference whether this contract dictated by the Railroad Company was for the permanent advantage of the Coal Company.

    8. It is argued, however, that the contract has not operated to the injury of the parties or of the public. *535 And, in answer to those urged by the Government, it is said that some of the objections now insisted on were not pressed in the lower court; that there is no complaint that the Railroad charged the Coal Company exorbitant prices; or, that it ever raised the New York prices; or, that it failed to make prompt deliveries; or, that it has prevented the Coal Company from buying coal from other operators; or, that the Railroad monopolized the coal mined on its railway, or that it deprived such mining companies of an open market. From this it is argued that the present objections to the contract are purely academic. But its validity depends upon its terms. And if, as a matter of law, the contract is in restraint of trade, or, if the Coal Company is practically the agent of the Railroad Company then the transportation of the coal by the latter is unlawful.

    9. As already pointed out, the contract has in it elements of a sale and elements of a sales agency. It provides that the Railroad Company will sell and that the Coal Company will buy all coal that is mined during the continuance of the contract; but it prevents the Coal Company from buying from any one else. It requires it to sell to present railroad customers at the old price, even though those prices may be unprofitable. The seller is not bound to make deliveries of fixed quantities at fixed dates and by decreasing what it will sell and determining when it will ship it has a power in connection with its power as a carrier, which, if exerted, would tend to increase prices in New York. Besides all this, the contract prevents the Coal Company from competing with the Railroad Company in the purchase of coal along the railway line. Taking it as a whole and bearing in mind the policy of the Commodity Clause to dissociate the Railroad Company from the transportation of property in which it is interested and that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act prohibits contracts in restraint of trade, *536 there would seem to be no doubt that this agreement violated both statutes.

    10. The Railroad Company, if it continues in the business of mining, must absolutely dissociate itself from the coal before the transportation begins. It cannot retain the title nor can it sell through an Agent. It cannot call that Agent a buyer while so hampering and restricting such alleged buyer as to make him a puppet subject to the control of the Railroad Company. If the Railroad sells coal at the mouth of the mines to one buyer or to many it must not only part with all interest direct or indirect in the property but also with all control over it or over those to whom the coal is sold at the mines. It must leave the buyer as free as any other buyer who pays for what he has bought. It should not sell to a corporation with officers and offices in common, — for the policy of the statute requires that instead of being managed by the same officers, they should studiously and in good faith avoid anything, either in contract or conduct, that remotely savors of joint action, joint interest or the dominance of one Company by the other. If the seller wishes — by a lawful and bona fide contract whose provisions as to delivery and otherwise are not in restraint of trade — to sell all of its coal to one buying company, then that one buyer can be bound by reasonable terms and required to pay according to the contract. But such buyer should otherwise be absolutely free to extend its business to buy when, where and from whom it pleases, and otherwise to act as an independent dealer in active competition with the Railroad Company.

    What has been said is sufficient to show that the contract was invalid. That makes it unnecessary to discuss other questions raised but not disposed of by the District Court, and the decision herein is without prejudice to the right of the United States to institute proceedings *537 in reference thereto or to test the right of the Railroad Company to purchase coal for sale.

    The decree is reversed with directions to enter a decree enjoining the Railroad from further transporting coal sold under the provisions of the contract of August 2, 1909, referred to in the Petition.


    MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS took no part in the decision of this case.


    [1] "From and after May 1, 1908, it shall be unlawful for any railroad company to transport" [in interstate commerce] "any article or commodity other than timber . . . manufactured, mined or produced by it, or under its authority, or which it may own in whole, or in part, or in which it may have any interest, direct or indirect, except such articles or commodities as may be necessary and intended for its use in the conduct of its business as a common carrier." 34 Stat. 585.

Document Info

DocketNumber: 517

Citation Numbers: 238 U.S. 516, 35 S. Ct. 873, 59 L. Ed. 1438, 1915 U.S. LEXIS 1584

Judges: Lamar, After Making the Foregoing Statement of Facts

Filed Date: 6/21/1915

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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