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decided: February 12, 1945.



Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge

Author: Roberts

[ 324 U.S. Page 139]

 MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are concerned in this case with the nature and extent of the powers of a federal court sitting to review an order of the Federal Power Commission.

The decision of the court below denied the petitioner's application for payment to it of a fund of some $25,000 deposited in court, and directed its payment to persons not privies to the transaction which created the fund. A detailed recitation of events is required to show how the question arises.

The Federal Power Commission (hereinafter called Commission), proceeding under the Natural Gas Act,*fn1 entered an order against the Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America (hereinafter called Pipeline) requiring it to cut its rates on natural gas to effect an annual reduction in revenue of not less than $3,750,000, effective September 1, 1940.

The petitioner, Central States Electric Company (hereinafter sometimes called Central), an Iowa corporation doing a public utility business in that State and elsewhere, purchased gas at wholesale from Pipeline and distributed it in Iowa.

Pipeline sought a review of the Commission's action by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The court set aside the order but, on certiorari, we reversed and sustained it.*fn2 At the inception of the case Pipeline had petitioned for a

[ 324 U.S. Page 140]

     temporary stay and the court below had granted a stay on condition that a bond be filed to secure the refund to purchasers at wholesale of the amounts respectively due them if the court should sustain the reduction of rates ordered by the Commission. On the dissolution of the temporary stay another was entered to continue until the further order of the court, conditioned that Pipeline should enter a second bond in the same terms. This was done.

When this court rendered its judgment sustaining the rate order, Pipeline became liable to make refunds in accordance with the bond. The court below, prior to the payment of the amount due under the bond, filed an opinion holding that it was its duty to take exclusive control over the refund when made and to determine the rights of all claimants in the fund, and made an order enjoining claimants to the fund from further proceeding in any other court. This action was pursuant to a petition of Pipeline showing that suits were being filed against it in other courts by the ultimate consumers of the gas sold by Pipeline to the local distributing companies and alleging that unless the court retained jurisdiction of the fund Pipeline would be subjected to numerous similar suits. Illinois Commerce Commission, in an answer, stated that the rates charged by distributing companies in Illinois were fixed by it and reflected the prices paid by distributors to Pipeline and that the refund, representing excessive rates paid by distributors, had been collected from the ultimate consumers and was equitably due them. The Illinois local distributors then before the court agreed that the refund should be ratably paid to the ultimate consumers.

Central was not a party to the proceeding in the Circuit Court of Appeals, but, on June 29, 1942, it sent a letter to the Clerk, in response to one from him, asserting that the portion of the refund representing excessive rates paid by Central during the refund period should be repaid to

[ 324 U.S. Page 141]

     it and not to the ultimate consumers. June 30, 1942, the court rendered an opinion in which it discussed the relative rights and interests of local distributors and ultimate consumers. The court found that, since the rates charged to local consumers included the excess charges paid by distributors to Pipeline, the ultimate consumers were in equity entitled to receive the refund. July 1, 1942, Pipeline paid into court a sum representing that portion of the rates paid to it in excess of the rate permitted by the Commission's order. The court thereupon entered an order to show cause, which specified the refund period, determined that the amount paid into court was the property of the ultimate consumers, and allocated the fund to the customers of the local distributors, including Central's customers (to whom there was allocated $25,708.54), reserved jurisdiction of the fund for the protection of all persons having rights therein, and directed all claimants to the fund to show cause why the order should not be binding on them. Later the court entered an order in which it found that Central had raised an issue concerning the relative rights of itself and its customers to the amount in question. Central, which, as we have said, had not become a party to the proceedings, then filed a petition in intervention praying that the sum be paid to it, and leave to intervene was granted. Central's petition set forth that it purchased natural gas from Pipeline during the refund period, pursuant to a contract; that the sum in question represented amounts paid by Central during the refund period in excess of the rates fixed by the Commission's order; that Central sold more than 81% of the gas in question without profit to Iowa Electric Company, which resold the same to some 2,400 consumers in Muscatine, Iowa, and that Central sold the balance directly to some 320 consumers in Greenfield, Iowa, 597 in Knoxville, Iowa, and 366 in Pella, Iowa; that less than 12 1/2% of the gas sold in Knoxville and Pella was natural

[ 324 U.S. Page 142]

     gas; that Iowa Electric Company had transferred all its rights in and to the fund to Central for the purpose of these proceedings; that, by the law of Iowa, the power to fix rates for gas service is vested in its municipalities, and the utility rates in that State are not regulated by any State agency or commission; that rates to consumers had been voluntarily reduced to meet competitive conditions and that such rates had been approved by resolution of the Council of Muscatine; and that, due to conditions in the communities serviced, the rates charged consumers were insufficient to produce a fair return.

Thereafter the court entered an order directing that the Attorney General of Iowa and the purchasers of gas from Central, and their respective municipal representatives in Muscatine and Greenfield, be notified of Central's claim to the fund and that they show cause why the relief sought by Central should not be granted. No such order was made with respect to consumers in Knoxville and Pella nor to any officials of those cities. The City of Muscatine and the Mayor of Greenfield, purporting to represent the consumers in those cities, filed separate pleadings in which they asserted that the fund in question belonged to the consumers.

The court, without hearing evidence, denied the relief prayed by Central by an order which was stated to be "without prejudice" to Central's "making claim of adjustment with the cities of Muscatine, Greenfield, Knoxville and Pella . . . or with the consumers of gas furnished by it in said cities." The reason stated for making the order was that the court was without jurisdiction to hear Central's claim since it involved a determination of "the reasonableness of petitioner's rates" and further since the court had previously ruled that the refund belonged to the ultimate ...

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