Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company v. United States
104 U.S. 680

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U.S. Supreme Court

Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company v. United States, 104 U.S. 680 (1881)

Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company v. United States

104 U.S. 680

Syllabus

1. A railroad company, in aid of which Congress granted land, entered, September, 1876, into a contract with the United States to transport for four years the mails over its road at a price which conformed to the statute then in force. It received from the Postmaster General due notice of his orders, reducing the rates of compensation, pursuant to the Act of July 12, 1876, c. 179, 19 Stat. 78, and the Act of July 17, 1878, c. 269, 20 id. 140. The company protested against the order, but performed the stipulated service. Held that it is entitled to recover the contract price therefor.

2. Those acts apply only to contracts thereafter made, or to such as did not require the performance of the service for a specific period.

The Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company owns and operates lines of railroad of which parts were constructed by companies which severally received from the United States, to aid in their construction, grants of public lands, to which was attached this condition:

"The United States mail shall be transported over such roads, under the direction of the Post Office Department, at such price as Congress may by law direct, provided that until such price is fixed by law, the Postmaster General shall have the power to determine the same."

Act of May 15, 1856, c. 28, 11 Stat. 9; Act of June 3, 1856, c. 42, id. 18.

In September, 1875, the company entered into three contracts in writing with the United States, acting by the Postmaster

Page 104 U. S. 681

General, each for conveying the mail on a certain route numbered and described therein over a part of its line for four years from July 1, 1875, at a fixed price per annum, being at the rate of a specified sum per mile. These contracts are in the usual form prescribed by the department, and specify the services to be performed, among other things requiring the company to convey, free of charge, all mailbags and post office blanks, and all accredited agents of the department free of charge, and to collect from postmasters on the route quarterly balances due from them to the government and account for the same, and stipulate for the payment of fines to be imposed upon the company for certain defaults. The ninth clause of each is as follows:

"That the Postmaster General may discontinue or curtail the service, in whole or in part, whenever the public interests in his judgment shall require such discontinuance or curtailment for any cause, he allowing, as a full indemnity to the contractor, one month's extra pay on the amount of service dispensed with and a pro rata compensation for the amount of service retained and continued."

These contracts were made by the Postmaster General under the authority of the following sections of the Revised Statutes:

"SEC. 3942. The Postmaster General may enter into contracts for carrying the mail, with railway companies, without advertising for bids therefor."

"SEC. 3946. No contract for carrying the mail shall be made for a longer term than four years, and no contract for carrying the mail on the sea shall be made for a longer term than two years."

The prices agreed to be paid were in conformity to the provisions of sec. 1 of the Act of March 3, 1873, c. 231, 17 Stat. 558, being sec. 4002 of the Revised Statutes.

In the Act of July 12, 1876, c. 179, making appropriations for the service of the Post Office Department &c., Congress inserted the following provisions, viz.:

"That the Postmaster General be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to readjust the compensation to be paid from and after the first day of July, 1876, for transportation of mails on railroad routes by reducing the compensation to all railroad companies for the

Page 104 U. S. 682

transportation of mails ten percentum per annum from the rates fixed and allowed by the first section of an act entitled 'An Act making appropriations for the service of the Post Office Department for the fiscal year ending June 30th, 1874, and for other purposes,' approved March 3, 1873, for the transportation of mails on the basis of the average weight."

"SEC. 13. That railroad companies whose railroad was constructed in whole or in part by a land grant made by Congress on the condition that the mails should be transported over their road at such prices as Congress should by law direct, shall receive only eighty percentum of the compensation authorized by this act."

19 Stat. 79, 82.

On Aug. 18, 1876, the Postmaster General issued an order, which was communicated to the company, reciting the foregoing provision relative to the ten percent deduction, and stating that the Assistant Attorney General of the Post Office Department had advised, with reference to railway service performed under contract with the government,

"that when the contract has been made in due form of law with a railroad company for the transportation of the mails for a term not yet expired, such contract is not affected"

by the provision.

On Oct. 20, 1876, the Postmaster General issued another circular reciting that provision, and also sec. 13 of the act of 1876, and informing the company that as required by that section, a reduction of twenty percent would be made for mail service performed after July 1, 1876, upon the routes over the roads aided by land grants.

To this notice the company replied with a protest against the proposed reduction, as in violation of its contract.

The Act of June 17, 1878, c. 259, 20 Stat. 140, contains this provision:

"That the Postmaster General be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to readjust the compensation to be paid from and after the first day of July, eighteen hundred and seventy-eight, for transportation of mails on railroad routes, by reducing the compensation to all railroad companies, for the transportation of mails, five percentum per annum from the rates for the transportation of mails, on the basis of the average weight, fixed and allowed by the first section of an act entitled"

"An Act making appropriations for

Page 104 U. S. 683

the service of the Post Office Department for the fiscal year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and seventy-seven, and for other purposes,"

"approved July twelfth, eighteen hundred and seventy-six."

On July 29, 1878, the Post Office Department notified the company that there would be a reduction of five percent from its compensation under this act, against which the company promptly protested.

The company performed all the service required by its contracts during the entire period covered by them, but deductions from the contract rates were made, in accordance with the notices of the department, at each settlement, amounting in the aggregate to $83,310.91, for which the company, on July 14, 1879, after the contracts had been completely performed on its part, brought the present suit. The Court of Claims rendered judgment in its favor for the sum of $876, being the amount of the deductions for the service performed from July 1 to July 12, 1876, the latter being the date when the first act, under which they were made, took effect.

From this judgment the company appealed.

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