Osborne v. San Diego Land & Town Co.
178 U.S. 22 (1900)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Osborne v. San Diego Land & Town Co., 178 U.S. 22 (1900)

Osborne v. San Diego Land and Town Company

No. 201

Argued March 19, 1900

Decided May 14, 1900

178 U.S. 22

Syllabus

The appropriation and disposition of water in California is a public use,

and the right to collect tolls or compensation for it is a franchise subject to regulation and control in the manner prescribed by law, and such tolls cannot be fixed by the contract of the parties.

It is not for the court to go into the reasonableness of the established rates which are sought to be enforced in this case, but if the consumers are dissatisfied with them, resort must first be had to the body designated by law to fix proper rates, the board of supervisors of the county.

This is a bill in equity to review and reverse a decree entered in the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of California in a suit in which Charles D. Lanning, receiver of the San Diego Land & Town Company of Kansas, was complainant and appellants herein were respondents, and in which the appellee was substituted before decree as complainant in lieu of said Lanning.

The bill is extremely voluminous, reciting all the pleadings and proceedings in the original suit.

The following is a condensed summary of them.

The bill, in addition to the incorporation of the company and the appointment of a receiver of its assets and affairs, alleged that it was the owner of valuable water, and water rights, reservoirs, and an entire water system for furnishing water to consumers, and that it had a franchise for impounding, sale, and disposition of the waters owned and stored by it to the respondents and other consumers, and to the City of National City and its inhabitants.

The company's supply of water came from the Sweetwater River, a small stream about five miles from the City of National City, and its means of distributing the water, which were described,

Page 178 U. S. 23

could supply but a limited amount of territory, consisting of farming lands within and outside of said city, and in part of the residence portion of the city.

The company, in procuring the water and its distributing system, had expended, up to January 1, 1896, the sum of $1,022,473.54, which was reasonably necessary for the purposes.

By the said expenditure, it had procured and owned, "subject to the public use and the regulation thereof by law," water and water rights, a reservoir site, and a reservoir of the capacity of six thousand million gallons, and had constructed mains necessary to supply the defendants and their lands, and had constructed and put in the mains and pipes necessary therefor, and was at the time mentioned in the bill furnishing the defendants and each of them with water.

The defendants are the owners respectively of tracts of land under the system of the company, most of them of only a few acres each, and each became the owner of a water right to a part of the water of the company necessary to irrigate his tract of land, and became liable to pay for a yearly rental such as the company was entitled to charge and collect.

The annual expense of the system and its operation, including interest on its bonds and excluding the natural and necessary depreciation, was $33,034.77, and to pay this expense and income of six percent on the amount invested on the first of January, 1896, it was necessary that the rates for water be fixed to realize $119,791.66.

The amount realized outside of the City of National City for that year was about $15,000, and no more than that sum could be probably realized for the year ending January 1, 1897.

The mains and pipes were perishable, and required to be replaced at least once in sixteen years, and required frequent repairs.

To acquire the water and construct the system, the company was compelled to borrow $300,000, and to pay interest in the sum of $21,000 annually, which must be realized from the sale of its water, and was part of its operating expenses, and the share of its revenues which should be raised in the City of National City was about one-third, and the amount which could

Page 178 U. S. 24

be raised from said city at the rates which prevailed under the ordinance mentioned in the bill was about $10,715 per annum, and no more.

The value of its water franchises and system was $1,100,000.

No other person or corporation was furnishing water to defendants, nor was there any other system by which they could be furnished, but the franchises and the rights of the company were not exclusive.

The City of National City was a municipal corporation of California of the sixth class, and the board of trustees thereof, claiming to act under the constitution and laws of the state, passed an ordinance fixing the rates to be charged for water sold and furnished by the company to consumers of the city.

The company commenced to furnish water in the year 1887, and was informed by its engineer that its system and supply of water would furnish to consumers sufficient to irrigate twenty thousand acres, and in addition what would be necessary for domestic use inside and outside of said city. The company was unfamiliar with the operation of the plant and system constructed and the cost of operating and maintaining them, and relying upon the estimates of the engineer, and believing that an annual rate of $3.50 per acre would be sufficient, fixed the rate at such sum, and had charged it until January 1, 1896, but, instead of being able to supply sufficient water to irrigate twenty thousand acres, it had been demonstrated by actual experience that the system would not supply sufficient to irrigate, to exceed seven thousand, together with water demanded for domestic use, and it was believed not to exceed six thousand acres, although there were about ten thousand acres under the system susceptible of irrigation.

At the rate of $3.50 per acre, even if all the lands of the system should be supplied with water and the rates in National City should be maintained, the company would not be able to pay operating expenses and maintain its plant, and the money invested in it would be lost, and the company would be compelled to furnish water at a loss, as it had been furnishing water at a loss, and its system had been going gradually to decay consequent

Page 178 U. S. 25

upon the want of revenue and means to replace the same.

To pay cost of operating and maintaining its system and a reasonable interest, it was necessary to charge $7.00 for irrigation purposes, and said sum was a reasonable rate for consumers to pay, and the smallest amount for which the company could furnish water without loss.

By the laws of California, the board of supervisors might, upon petition of twenty-five inhabitants and taxpayers of the county, fix the yearly rental for water, but no such petition had been presented or rates fixed in the case of the company.

For the reasons above stated, the company gave notice to the defendant that, on January 1, 1896, it would establish a rental of $7.00 per acre.

The defendants and each of them refused to pay such sum, and maintain that neither the company nor its receiver had the power to increase the rental, and that the former rate must be and remain the rental until the board of supervisors establish one as provided by law.

The increase of the rental was absolutely necessary to maintain and operate the plant.

To enforce the rental, the complainant caused the water to be shut off the premises of each of the defendants, and each of them threatened and would, unless restrained by the court from doing so, commence a suit in the Superior Court of San Diego County, California, to compel complainant to turn on and furnish water again, claiming the use for $3.50 per acre, and for damages. The rights of the defendants and the determination of the question of the right of the company would affect all in the same way and extent, except the quantity of land owned by the several defendants was different.

The bringing of said suits would involve complainant in a multiplicity of suits, would hinder him in the operation of the property of the company and the settlement of its debts and obligations, and the questions involved could better be settled in one suit.

The increase in rates would add to the revenue of the company with the amount of land now under irrigation, not less

Page 178 U. S. 26

than $14,000 per annum, and upon the whole of the land which could be irrigated not less than $20,000 per annum.

There were allegations of the legal character of certain of the defendants, and the bill concluded with the following prayer:

"Wherefore your orator prays your honors to grant to him the writ of injunction against the defendants and each of them, enjoining them from prosecuting in the state courts or elsewhere separate actions against your orator or said land and town company; that said defendants and each of them be required to appear in this suit and set up any claims they may have against the right of your orator or said company to increase the rental for water furnished by said company, as aforesaid, and that it be finally decreed by this Court that your orator, as such receiver, and said company have the right to increase the amount of its rentals to any reasonable sum, and that the sum of $7.00 per acre per annum is a reasonable rental to be charged, and that the defendants and each of them be required to pay said rate as a condition upon which water shall be furnished to them, and that your orator shall have generally such other and further relief as the nature of his case may require."

The answer was very long and somewhat confused by repetitions. The substance of it is given in the opinion of the circuit court. 76 F. 319.

It is sufficient for the purpose to say that its allegations and defenses were based on the claim that the supply and system of the company were subject

"to the water rights, easements in, and servitudes upon said reservoir and system, and to all other rights acquired by these defendants therein . . . and annexed to the respective parcels of lands of these defendants. And also each such water right and easement was in freehold, and was a freehold servitude imposed upon said water system for the benefit of the land to which it was appurtenant, and that all claims and demands of said company for the price or compensation therefor had been paid or otherwise satisfied by purchase or otherwise, as in the bill of complaint alleged."

And such rights extended to and included the right to have the company maintain that system efficiently to conduct the water to the premises of each of the defendants for irrigation, and other

Page 178 U. S. 27

uses at "the annual rates to be deemed and accepted as the legally established rates therefor under the facts hereinafter set forth."

These facts were, besides those stated in the opinion, that each defendant and all of them paid the full amount demanded by the company as the price of the perpetual easement of water supply from the system granted and annexed to their lands, and that they were forever discharged from the payment of any further sum to apply on the principal of or as income upon the cost or value of the system or debt incurred for its construction or the value of their respective water rights. And that, in these respects, the company had put all lands on an equal footing, and they had remained on the same footing for more than five years, and in many cases had changed hands; that the value of the water rights had for more than five years entered into the market value of the lands and the price paid to their vendors by the defendants, who were their successors in title, and they were induced to purchase, improve, and settle upon their respective parcels on account of the rate of $3.50 per acre per annum, and it entered into and became a material element of their value.

That by the constitution of the state of 1879, it is provided in article XIV, section 1, among other things, as follows, to-wit:

"The use of all water now appropriated or that may hereafter be appropriated for sale, rental, or distribution is hereby declared to be a public use, and subject to the regulation and control of the state in the manner to be prescribed by law."

"SEC. 2. The right to collect rates or compensation for the use of water supplied to any county, city and county, or town, or the inhabitants thereof, is a franchise, and cannot be exercised except by authority of and in the manner prescribed by law."

And, in pursuance of the provision the legislature passed an Act approved March 12, 1885, entitled

"An Act to Regulate and Control the Sale, Rental, and Distribution of Appropriated Water in the State Other Than in Any City, City and County, or Town Therein, and to Secure the Rights of Way for the Conveyance of Such Water to the Places of Use. "

Page 178 U. S. 28

The act provided that the sale and distribution of appropriated water was a public use, and the right to collect compensation therefor a franchise, and, except when furnished by a city or town, should be regulated and controlled by the board of supervisors of the counties of the state in the manner prescribed, and that the board might establish different rates as the case might be, and different rates for the several different uses, such as mining, irrigating, etc., for which the water should be applied, and the rates fixed should be binding and conclusive for a year, until established anew or abrogated. And it was provided that, until the boards of supervisors establish rates, the rates "actually established and collected . . . should be deemed and accepted as the legally established rates."

That the rate of $3.50 per acre was the only actual rate for irrigation which had ever been established and collected by the company or its receiver, or assented to by consumers.

That they each had, since January 1, 1896, paid the rate of $3.50 per acre to the complainant as receiver, and were willing and offered to pay the same as long as it should be legally established. And it was averred that, insofar as the act of 1885 purported to prohibit the company from the sale of servitudes in freehold upon its system, or to contract respecting the same, or to receive full compensation from any consumer therefor who was willing to contract for the same and to prescribe that such easement should be used only upon the terms and conditions that the owners render net annual receipts and profits upon the value thereof in perpetuity, or to prohibit contracts respecting the annual receipts, or to extinguish and satisfy the right of the company to such net annual receipts, the same was unconstitutional and void, and in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and section 1, article 9, of the Constitution of the state.

That the liability of the defendants to pay rates was several, not joint, and that certain of the defendants were not residents of the state, certain others not residents of the County of San Diego, and others were school districts, and that none of them was competent to make petition to the board of supervisors as required in the act of 1885, and said act, as far as it purported

Page 178 U. S. 29

to authorize the company to increase the rates of $3.50 per acre, was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and deprived each of them of his or her property without due process of law, and to each of them the equal protection of the laws.

That, insofar as the statute of 1885 purported to authorize the company to shut off water from the lands of defendants or to increase the rate without consent of the defendants, or to permit its collection without giving the defendants a standing in court to contest the reasonableness of the increase, was also in violation of said Fourteenth Amendment. And, also, that the complainant, by shutting off water, violated that amendment.

The bill of review then averred that there were exceptions taken to the answer on the ground that it did not set forth or discover relative and material matters of fact tending to show that the bill was not true or in confession or avoidance thereof, but instead set forth immaterial and irrelevant matter.

Each exception was specific, but altogether they went to the whole answer except its admissions and certain of its denials.

It was prayed that the defendants be compelled to amend the answer and to put in a full and sufficient one.

The exceptions coming on to be heard, they were sustained; the defendants excepted.

By order of the court, on motion of complainant, Charles D. Lanning was discharged as receiver and the San Diego Land & Town Company of Maine was substituted as complainant; defendants excepted.

A notice was given of a motion to be made that the bill in the suit be taken pro confesso, and a decree of the court be taken accordingly on the ground that the exceptions to the answer had been sustained and no amended answer had been filed within the time allowed.

The motion came on to be heard, and, pending its hearing, the defendants gave notice of a motion to dismiss the suit on the ground that the receiver had been discharged, the property had been sold under foreclosure, and had passed into the hands of another corporation; that the San Diego Land & Town Company

Page 178 U. S. 30

of Maine was not the successor of the receiver, and had no interest or right to prosecute the action, and that the Board of Supervisors of San Diego County had fixed the rates of the company.

The two motions came on to be heard on the second of January, 1898, and the motion to dismiss was denied, and the motion that the bill be taken pro confesso against all the defendants was granted, and a decree ordered to be entered according to the opinion of the court. The defendants excepted.

The bill of review further averred that the court caused to be entered, greatly to the prejudice of the orators, its decree which was set out at length. It further averred that the defendants had paid the costs adjudged against them, and detailed at length their exceptions to the ruling of the court. The exceptions reasserted the materiality and sufficiency of the averments of the answer, contended that the court misapprehended them, and erroneously treated and considered the exceptions as raising for discussion the merits of the case, and, by expunging the answer from the records, deprived the defendants of the right to have the merits of their defenses on their face regularly determined upon the setting of the cause for hearing on bill and answer or upon issues raised and proofs made.

The bill of review asserted further errors against the decree in that it denied the rights alleged in the answer of defendants, and so construed and enforced the constitution and statutes of the state as to violate Section 1, Article XIV, of the Constitution of the United States in that it maintained the company and the receiver in increasing the rate, and the condition of nonpayment the right to shut off the water from the lands of the defendants, and thereby deprived them of the equal protection of the laws and of their property without due process of law. And further, because it was an exercise of judicial power to the same end, and to the deprivation of the right of contract without due process of law. Also denied to the state a republican form of government, guaranteed by Section 4, Article IV, of the Constitution of the United States, in that, as enforced and applied, the state assumed the absolute control of all water

Page 178 U. S. 31

appropriated and all works for its distribution, abolished capacity to acquire property, rights, and servitudes in such water and waterworks absolutely, or with ownership of lands for irrigation, or free from the perpetual obligation to pay net revenue of not less than six nor more than eighteen percent per annum upon the cost or value of the water system, and abolished the right or capacity to ascertain, fix, or define, by contract or convention, the rate of compensation to be paid by any consumer for the supply of water for irrigation of land.

Error was also asserted in the decree in that it was in favor of the San Diego Land & Town Company, of Maine, although it had not become a party to the cause, by supplemental bill or otherwise, and because what interest it had did not appear, nor was its claim to any interest set forth so that the defendant could answer or plead thereto. Also error in that the court had no jurisdiction to entertain the cause or make any decree on the merits, and error in not dismissing the suit after the discharge of Lanning, the receiver and complainant.

The bill concluded with the following prayer:

"Wherefore, as said errors appear on the face of the record and are greatly prejudicial to complainants and their rights in the premises, complainants pray that said decree may be reviewed, reversed, and set aside, and no further proceedings taken therein, and to that end complainants pray process by subpoena against the San Diego Land & Town Company, of Maine, requiring it to appear and answer hereunto, and show cause, if it may, why said decree should not be reviewed, reversed, and set aside, and such further orders and decrees be made as to the court may seem just, including the restoration to your orators of the sum of money paid under said decree, as aforesaid."

The defendant (appellee) moved the court to strike the bill from the files and dismiss the suit.

The motion was denied. The water company then demurred to the bill on the grounds that it appeared therefrom that there was no error in the proceeding and decision in Lanning v. Osborne appearing on the face of the record or otherwise; that complainants were not entitled to the relief prayed for, or any relief; that no error appeared in said suit which could be relieved

Page 178 U. S. 32

by a bill of review or a bill in the nature of a bill of review; that the remedy of complainants was by appeal.

The demurrer was sustained with leave to complainants to amend the bill in ten days.

The complainants elected to stand on their bill, and decree was entered on the demurrer as follows:

"It is therefore considered and decreed by the court that the plaintiffs take nothing by their bill herein, that said bill be, and the same is hereby, dismissed, and that the defendant have and recover of and from the plaintiffs its costs in this behalf laid out and expended, taxed at $20.50."

The case was then brought here.

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