Pine Hill Coal Co., Inc. v. United States
259 U.S. 191 (1922)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Pine Hill Coal Co., Inc. v. United States, 259 U.S. 191 (1922)

Pine Hill Coal Company, Inc. v. United States

No. 101

Argued January 20, 1922

Decided May 29, 1922

259 U.S. 191

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF CLAIMS

Syllabus

1. Section 25 of the "Lever Act" of August 10, 1917, c. 53, 40 Stat. 284, authorized the fixing of all prices of coal and the regulation of its distribution among dealers and consumers during the war, and the taking over by the President, for just compensation, of plants and businesses of producers and dealers who neglected to conform to such prices or regulations, and further provided that "if the prices so fixed," or the compensation as determined under the act in case of requisition, were not satisfactory to the persons entitled to receive them, they should be paid seventy-five percentum "of the amount so determined" and be

"entitled to sue the United States to recover such further sum as, added to said seventy-five percentum, will make up such amount as will be just compensation."

Held that the prices last referred to are only those to be paid by the government, and that the act cannot be construed as an undertaking by the United States to indemnify producers who sold to third parties where the prices fixed were unjust and unreasonable. P. 259 U. S. 195.

2. A construction of a statute which would make the government liable in great sums for losses resulting to individuals from obedience to its regulations cannot be based upon the vicissitudes attending the passage of the bill, nor be adopted unless expressed in the plainest language. P. 259 U. S. 196.

55 Ct.Clms. 433 affirmed.

Appeal from a judgment sustaining a demurrer to a petition setting up a claim to indemnity for losses resulting from sales of coal at prices fixed by the government.

Page 259 U. S. 194

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case, like Morrisdale Coal Co. v. United States, ante,259 U. S. 188, is a claim based upon the action of the Fuel Administration under the Act of August 10, 1917, c. 53, § 25, 40 Stat. 276, 284, fixing prices for coal. The allegations and arguments, however, are different. The transactions of the claimant from and including September, 1917, through January, 1919, are set forth in detail. They embrace large sales at government prices and smaller sales at other than those prices. It is alleged that the prices fixed for the claimant's coal were unjust and unreasonable, and did not afford just compensation, and that, as a result of keeping to them, as the claimant did, the receipts were actually less than the cost of production. On these facts, the petition sets up a contract of indemnity on the part of the United States arising out of the language to be quoted from § 25. It was dismissed on demurrer by the Court of Claims.

The paragraph of § 25 that is relied upon follows paragraphs giving authority to the President personally or through the Federal Trade Commission to fix the price of coal and coke, to regulate the method of distribution among dealers and consumers during the war, and, if a producer or dealer neglects to conform to such prices or regulations, etc., to take over the plant and business, paying a just compensation. The paragraph in question reads:

"That if the prices so fixed, or if, in the case of the taking over or requisitioning of the mines or business of any such producer or dealer, the compensation therefor as determined by the provisions of this Act be not satisfactory to the person or persons entitled to receive the same, such person shall be paid seventy-five percentum of the amount so

Page 259 U. S. 195

determined, and shall be entitled to sue the United States to recover such further sum as, added to said seventy-five percentum, will make up such amount as will be just compensation in the manner provided by section twenty-four, paragraph twenty, and § one hundred and forty-five of the Judicial Code."

The latter section of the Judicial Code is the one that gives jurisdiction to the Court of Claims, and the former that which gives a limited concurrent jurisdiction to the district courts.

It is obvious that the words as they stand cannot be applied to sales by producers to third persons, for it would be absurd to suppose that the United States undertook to pay not only such additional sum as might be awarded, but also the last 25 percentum of the price as fixed, leaving the buyer to retain that amount. The claimant admits this, but insists that, however read, the paragraph cannot be followed without correction. It argues that the opening words, "if the price so fixed," necessarily apply to prices in general as fixed by the power just given in the section. Therefore, it says, there should be interpolated in the provision that the seller shall be paid 75 percentum the words "the prices so fixed or," and in like manner that the provision for recovery should read that he shall recover such sum as added to "the said prices," or said 75 percentum will be just. It points out that, while seeking to stimulate production in aid of the war, the government could not fix very high prices without arousing householders and manufacturers, or very low ones without endangering the supply and incurring the charge of confiscation. It is said that the natural way out of the difficulty was for the government to guarantee a just return, and that, by so doing, it avoided doubts as to the constitutionality of the statute. There is offered a critical and refined scrutiny of the history of the amendment that introduced the claim. The argument is that the section that became § 25, when originally offered

Page 259 U. S. 196

as an amendment, clearly provided for payment in all cases, that a modification was introduced for payment of only 75 percentum upon takings by the United States, but that it was not intended to change the general scope of the relief. Other makeweights are thrown in to which we think it unnecessary to advert.

It is a delicate business to base speculations about the purposes or construction of a statute upon the vicissitudes of its passage. Here we have, as against the arguments of the claimant, the fundamental and necessarily governing consideration that rightly prevailed below. A liability, in any case, is not to be imposed upon a government without clear words. But liability for a regulation, for the consequences of a law, on the part of the legislating power, is most unusual, and where, as here, the liability would mount to great sums, only the plainest language could warrant a Court in taking it to be imposed. The general words "the prices so fixed," taken by themselves, no doubt would include prices to private purchasers, but the specific provision as to paying 75 percentum prevails over them on the usual principles of construction, and excludes a reference to any prices except those paid by the government. It is said that those prices are provided for elsewhere, but the claimant's argument presses the consideration that the law had to be hastily passed, and unnecessary reduplication is far more easy to admit than an enormous charge upon the United States that can be fastened upon it only by inserting into a statute words that are not there.

Judgment affirmed.

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