INTERSTATE COMM. v. LOUISVILLE & C. RR , 190 U.S. 273 ( 1903 )


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  • 190 U.S. 273 (1903)

    INTERSTATE COMMERCE COMMISSION
    v.
    LOUISVILLE AND NASHVILLE RAILROAD COMPANY.

    No. 214.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued April 13, 1903.
    Decided May 18, 1903.
    APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

    *279 Mr. L.A. Shaver for appellant.

    Mr. Ed. Baxter for appellees.

    MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The Circuit Court concurred in the finding of the Commission, that by the exaction of the rates to LaGrange complained of, the third and fourth sections of the act to regulate commerce were violated, and, being unable to say that error clearly appeared in the finding that the first section of the act was also violated, refused to overrule the action of the Commission in any particular.

    Whilst the Circuit Court of Appeals announced its conclusions *280 in a per curiam opinion, it is fairly inferable from the authorities which are cited in that opinion that the court concluded that the rates charged to LaGrange did not constitute a violation of the third and fourth sections of the act, prohibiting undue discrimination and a greater charge for a shorter than for a longer haul under substantially similar circumstances and conditions. It is also inferable from the argument at bar that the appellate court, so far as the reasonableness per se of the rates was concerned, ordered the case to be dismissed, without prejudice to further proceedings, because it was of opinion that in the consideration of this question the Commission had been in effect controlled by its finding, held to have been erroneous, that there had been violations of the third and fourth sections of the act. It was, therefore, deemed that the controversy, in so far as the intrinsic reasonableness of the rates was concerned, should not be foreclosed, but should be left for further consideration and decision upon the evidence already introduced and such additional evidence as might be taken on a further hearing before the Commission if such new hearing was desired.

    Whether or not the Circuit Court of Appeals was correct in the conclusions reached by it as above stated, is the question now for decision.

    The record convinces us that the appellate court correctly decided that there was no legal foundation for the contention that the third and fourth sections of the act to regulate commerce had been violated. It was and is conceded that the rates on through freight from New Orleans to Atlanta were the result of competition at Atlanta, and that there was hence such a dissimilarity of circumstances and conditions as justified the lesser charge for the carriage of freight from New Orleans to Atlanta, the longer distance point, than was exacted for the haul from New Orleans to LaGrange, the shorter distance point.

    The sum of the rate to LaGrange was arrived at by charging the low rate produced by competition at Atlanta, and adding thereto the sum of the local rate back from Atlanta to LaGrange. The same rule was applied to the stations between *281 LaGrange and Atlanta, each of those stations receiving, therefore, a somewhat lower rate than LaGrange, although they were located a greater distance from New Orleans and nearer Atlanta. The sum by which the rates from New Orleans to these respective stations between LaGrange and Atlanta were lower than the LaGrange rate, was dependent upon the distance these respective stations were from Atlanta. It was shown, however, and is unquestioned, that, except in a particular to which we shall have occasion hereafter to refer, if the charge had been based on the nearest competitive point south of LaGrange — that is, Montgomery — and there had been added to the competitive rate to Montgomery the local rate from Montgomery to LaGrange and the other stations beyond, the freight rates on shipments from New Orleans to LaGrange would have been much greater than the rates now complained of as excessive. In other words, the railroads, instead of putting out of view the competition prevailing at Atlanta, when they fixed the rates to the non-competitive points, took the low rates prevailing at Atlanta as a basis and added thereto the local rate from Atlanta, the result being that the places in question were given the advantage resulting from their proximity to Atlanta, the competitive point, in proportion to the degree of such proximity.

    When the situation just stated is comprehended it results that the complaint in effect was that a method of rate-making had been resorted to which gave to the places referred to a lower rate than they otherwise would have enjoyed. In this situation of affairs, we fail to see how there was any just cause of complaint. Clearly, if, disregarding the competition at Atlanta, the higher rate had been established from New Orleans to the non-competitive points within the designated radius from Atlanta, the inevitable result would have been to cause the traffic to move from New Orleans to the competitive point (Atlanta), and thence to the places in question, thus bringing about the same rates now complained of. It having been established that competition affecting rates existing at a particular point (Atlanta) produced the dissimilarity of circumstances and conditions contemplated by the fourth section of the act, we *282 think it inevitably followed that the railway companies had a right to take the lower rate prevailing at Atlanta as a basis for the charge made to places in territory contiguous to Atlanta, and to ask in addition to the low competitive rate the local rate from Atlanta to such places, provided thereby no increased charges resulted over those which would have been occasioned if the low rate to Atlanta had been left out of view. That is to say, it seems incontrovertible that in making the rate, as the railroads had a right to meet the competition, they were authorized to give the shippers the benefit of it by according to them a lower rate than would otherwise have been afforded. True it is, that by this method a lower rate from New Orleans than was exacted at LaGrange obtained at the longer distance places lying between LaGrange and Atlanta, but this was only the result of their proximity to the competitive point, and they hence obtained only the advantage resulting from their situation. It could be no legal disadvantage to LaGrange, since if the low competitive rate prevailing at Atlanta had been disregarded, and the rate had been fixed with reference to Montgomery, and the local rate from thence on, the sole result would have been, as we have previously said, to cause the traffic to move along the line of least resistance to Atlanta, and thence to the places named, leaving LaGrange in the exact position in which it was placed by the rates now complained of.

    It is to be observed that it is shown that the local charges on freight moved between Atlanta and LaGrange and the stations intermediate — all of the points being in the State of Georgia — conformed to the requirements of the Georgia State Railroad Commission.

    In the report of the Commission a suggestion is found that LaGrange should be entitled to the same rate as Atlanta, because if the carriers concerned in this case in connection with other carriers reaching LaGrange chose to do so, they might bring about competition by the way of a line between Macon and LaGrange which would be equivalent to the competitive conditions existing at Atlanta. We are unable, however, to follow the suggestion. To adopt it would amount to this: that the substantial dissimilarity of circumstances and conditions *283 provided by the act to regulate commerce would depend, not as has been repeatedly held, upon a real and substantial competition at a particular point affecting rates, but upon the mere possibility of the arising of such competition. This would destroy the whole effect of the act and cause every case where competition was involved to depend, not upon the fact of its existence as affecting rates, but upon the possibility of its arising. What the fourth section of the act to regulate commerce has reference to is an actual dissimilarity of circumstances and conditions, not a conjectural one. Of course, if by agreements or combinations among carriers it were found that at a particular point rates were unduly influenced by a suppression of competition, that fact would be proper to consider in determining the question of undue discrimination and the reasonableness per se of the rates at such possible competitive points. As, however, the finding of the Commission concerning unjust discrimination was predicated solely upon the conclusion that the fourth section of the act had been violated, we may put that subject out of view. So far as the reasonableness per se of the rate is concerned, we come now to its consideration.

    Whilst there was nothing in the evidence taken before the Commission to lend support to the finding that the rates to LaGrange were intrinsically unreasonable, in the report of the Commission considerable reference was made to facts and circumstances which it is to be presumed were upon the files of the Commission and which were deemed to conduce to the conclusion that the rates to LaGrange were unreasonable per se. But when the statements on this subject made in the report are considered in connection with the report as a whole and the subjects to which no reference is made in the report are recalled, we think it clearly results that every conclusion reached by the Commission concerning the unreasonableness per se of the rates to LaGrange rested wholly upon the error of law committed by the Commission when it decided that the railroad companies were powerless to consider the competitive rates prevailing at Atlanta and to use those rates as a basis for the charges to points within the competitive area in order thereby to give a lower rate to such points than they otherwise would *284 have enjoyed. Thus, it was held in effect that because the competitive rate to Atlanta was not unduly low, therefore any higher charge to LaGrange, the shorter distance, was unreasonable. And the same misconception was manifested by the reasoning adopted concerning the rates to Hogansville and the other stations between LaGrange and Atlanta, since it was held that because the charges to these points were lower than to LaGrange, therefore the rates to the last named point were unreasonable per se. Both of these conclusions, however, but held that if the carriers elected to meet the competitive rate at Atlanta they must at once correspondingly reduce their rates to all shorter distance and non-competitive points. But such a ruling was equivalent to overthrowing the settled construction of the Interstate Commerce Act allowing carriers to charge the lesser rate for the longer than for the shorter distance, if at the further point the lesser rate was justified by a substantial dissimilarity of circumstances and conditions there prevailing, consequent upon real competition. A clause in the order of the Commission makes it clear that no independent finding as to the unreasonableness of the rates was made, since it allows the carriers to continue to charge the rates complained of to LaGrange, provided no higher rates were charged to the more distant points between there and Atlanta. The inconsistency between such order and the conclusion that the rates to the shorter distance point were unreasonable per se was pointed out in East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railway Co. v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 181 U.S. 1, where it was said (p. 23):

    "A decree which ordered the carriers to desist from charging a greater compensation for the lesser than for the longer haul, would be in no way responsive to the conclusion that the rate for the lesser distance was unreasonable in and of itself. Such a decree would in effect authorize the carrier to continue to charge at its election a rate which was in itself unreasonable to the shorter point."

    And when, in connection with the matters just stated, it is observed that the report of the Commission makes no reference whatever to any intrinsic disparity between the LaGrange *285 rates and those prevailing at other non-competitive points between New Orleans and LaGrange, no room in reason is left to sustain the view that the Commission could have held that the rates to LaGrange were in and of themselves unreasonable, irrespective of the competitive condition prevailing at Atlanta, and the arrangement of rates which arose from it which formed the main subject of the complaint.

    We conclude that, under the circumstances disclosed by the record, the Circuit Court of Appeals committed no error in refusing to enforce the order of the Commission and in remanding the case to that body for such independent consideration of the question of the reasonableness per se of the rates as the ends of justice might require.

    It remains only to consider a special question concerning the third and fourth sections of the act, which was passed over in an earlier part of this opinion. As has been said, the complaint made before the Commission alleged a disparity and discrimination alone because of the difference of rates between LaGrange and the points beyond to Atlanta, and the report of the Commission in effect dealt only with such alleged grievances. However, in the course of its report, it was remarked by the Commission that Opelika, which was 38 miles south of LaGrange, was a competitive point, and that if Opelika was used as the basis for calculating the rate to LaGrange, a slightly lesser rate on some articles would be enjoyed by LaGrange than was the case by basing the rate on Atlanta as the nearest competitive point. The Commission, however, would seem to have attached no great importance to the matter which it thus noticed, since nothing in the order entered by it was responsive to the suggestion. It was stated, however, at bar that in the argument of the case in the Circuit Court of Appeals that court directed the attention of the counsel of the railroads to the fact that, even if their theories of the case were sound and were approved, there was a suggestion in the report of the Commission which indicated that Opelika and not Atlanta was the proper basing point for fixing the rates to LaGrange, as thereby LaGrange would enjoy on some classes of freight a slightly lower rate than resulted from using Atlanta as the *286 basic point. It was also conceded at bar by counsel for all parties that when this suggestion was made the counsel for the railroad companies immediately declared that such fact had escaped attention, that it would at once be brought to the notice of the railroad companies, and a change of rates would be immediately put into effect upon that basis. And the brief of counsel for the Commission states that a modified tariff, based on Opelika, was put into operation by the railroad companies in May, 1900, immediately after the argument of the case in the Circuit Court of Appeals, and has been continued in force from that time to this, the decree below having been entered more than one year after the submission of the cause. It is, however, now insisted that the change made by the railway companies to conform to the development as to Opelika is a confession that there was error in the action of the Circuit Court of Appeals, and therefore requires that the decree of that court should be at least in part reversed. It would be, it is said, indeed dangerous to allow a railway company to exact illegal rates, and persist in doing so even after the order of the Commission had been issued, and then escape the consequences of its wrongdoing by at the last hour changing its rates in order to prevent the entry of a decree against it. The reasoning has abstract force, but its application to the case in hand is devoid of merit, since neither in the complaint made before the Commission nor in the evidence introduced for the complainant was any claim made that wrong had been done because of a combination of rates based on Atlanta instead of Opelika. Indeed, the relief sought by the complaint and that accorded by the Commission was inconsistent with the theory that the rates should be based on either Opelika or Atlanta. As the altered tariff based on Opelika had been in force more than one year prior to the entry of the decree below, the court doubtless considered it unnecessary to provide for its continuance. The record does not disclose, nor was it suggested, that any application was made to the Circuit Court of Appeals to modify its decree so as to direct the continuance of such new tariff, both parties evidently acting on the reasonable assumption that it was an accomplished fact. Under these circumstances, *287 we do not think a formal modification of the decree of the Circuit Court of Appeals is required; and that decree is therefore

    Affirmed.

    MR. JUSTICE HARLAN dissents.