Ottinger v. Consolidated Gas Co.
272 U.S. 576 (1926)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ottinger v. Consolidated Gas Co., 272 U.S. 576 (1926)

Ottinger v. Consolidated Gas Co.

No. 357

Argued October 18, 19, 1926

Decided November 29, 1926

272 U.S. 576

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

An Act of New York, c. 899, (1923), prescribing a gas rate of one dollar per thousand feet, held confiscatory. P. 272 U. S. 579.

6 F.2d 243 modified and affirmed.

Appeal from a judgment of the district court enjoining enforcement of a New York rate-fixing statute in a suit brought by the gas company against the Attorney

Page 272 U. S. 577

General of the State and the New York Public Service Commission.

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Newton v Consolidated Gas Company,258 U. S. 165, decided March 6, 1922, this Court held that Chapter 125, New York Laws 1906, which prescribed an 80-cent per 1,000 feet gas rate, had become confiscatory, and should not be enforced. Thereafter the New York Public Service Commission made careful investigation of the property and operations of appellee and prescribed a rate not exceeding $1.15 per 1,000 for gas of 537 British thermal units, effective October 1, 1922, to continue for one year. Acceptance of this order, the company now claims, consummated a binding agreement with the state. The legislature, by an Act approved June 2, 1923, c. 899, effective immediately, directed that thereafter in New York City not more than $1 per 1,000 feet should be demanded for gas of 650 British thermal units.

By an original bill in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, wherein the Public Service Commission and the Attorney General of that state were the defendants, appellee attacked the Act of June 2, 1923, as confiscatory and prayed for an injunction prohibiting enforcement thereof. It also asked that the Act be adjudged void because enforcement would impair the

Page 272 U. S. 578

company's contract with the state under the Commission's order, contrary to Article I, § 10, of the federal Constitution; further, that the Act be declared invalid because of the impossibility of supplying immediately and with safety to consumers gas of 650 thermal units. Answers followed, and the matter went to a master, who took much proof, found the value of the property dedicated to public use, cost of operation, the impossibility of furnishing safely gas of the prescribed standard, etc. He reported the $1 rate would not yield a fair return upon such property, estimated according to any reasonable standard, and therefore recommended that the act be declared confiscatory and unenforceable. He further recommended that it be declared invalid because in conflict with Article I, § 10, also because compliance therewith was practically impossible. The court confirmed this report without material modification, adjudged as recommended, and granted the injunction prayed for. Consolidated Gas Co. of New York v. Prendergast, 6 F.2d 243.

The Commission, wisely, we think, declined to ask review here of the final decree. The Attorney General sued out a broad, separate appeal. His petition therefor alleges:

"That, in substance, the decree restrains the defendants from enforcing in any way chapter 899 of the Laws of 1923 of the state of New York and declares that said statute violates or is in contravention of § 10 of Article I and of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."

There is an enormous record. Seventy-one assignments of error assail rulings of the court and question many of the master's actions and conclusions.

Although somewhat oracular -- as in the lines which make solemn declaration concerning the position which this Court must ultimately take regarding valuations in rate cases -- and too much burdened with unimportant dissertations, the report of the master contains a valuable analysis of the relevant evidence and clear statements

Page 272 U. S. 579

concerning values. It also sets out distinctly what the evidence discloses as to the cost of production, expenses of the business, etc. He concluded that the prescribed rate of $1 per 1,000 feet would not yield a return of 6 percentum, and was therefore confiscatory. With this conclusion the court below agreed, and we find nothing whatever suggested by the Attorney General in brief or oral argument which would justify material modification or reversal of the final decree insofar as it so adjudges and directs appropriate injunctions.

As the statute is clearly confiscatory, and therefore invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment, it was unnecessary for the trial court to consider other objections thereto, and we have not done so.

The decree of the district court will be modified by excluding therefrom those parts which declare the Act invalid for any reason except that enforcement would result in confiscation. Thus modified, it is affirmed. All costs of the appeal will be taxed against appellant.

Affirmed with modification.

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS concurs in the result.

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