American Power Light Co v. Securities and Exchange Commission Securities and Exchange Commission v. Okin

Decision Date04 June 1945
Docket Number815,Nos. 470,s. 470
PartiesAMERICAN POWER & LIGHT CO. v. SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION. SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION v. OKIN
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

As Amended on Denial of Rehearing June 18, 1945.

Mr. R. A. Henderson, of New York City, for petitioner American Power & Light Co.

Mr. Roger S. Foster, of Philadelphia, Pa., for Securities and Exchange Commission.

Mr. Samuel Okin, of New York City, in pro. per.

Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in these cases because of an apparent conflict in the decisions below1 concerning the application of § 24(a) of the Public Utility Holding Company Act,2 which provides that 'any person or party aggrieved by an order issued by the Commission' under the Act may obtain a review of the order by the Circuit Court of Appeals of the circuit of his residence or principal place of business. The difference of view is as to the scope of the phrase 'person or party aggrieved.'

In No. 470 it appears that the petitioner is a registered holding company and owns all the common stock of the Florida Power & Light Company. The paragraphs of the order in controversy require Florida to make certain accounting entries which will result in taking out of surplus moneys which would otherwise be available to pay dividends to petitioner. The order including these paragraphs was made as the result of proceedings before the Commission to which American and Florida were parties, and in which American participated; and the provisions in controversy appear to have been drawn with a view that they might be contested apart from other matters before the Commission, and to have included statements to the effect that they were made without prejudice to the rights of American and Florida to contest them.

American petitioned the court below to set aside the order. Later Florida petitioned another Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the same paragraph attacked by American. The Commission moved to dismiss American's petition, reciting the fact that Florida had instituted a similar proceeding, and asserting that American, as sole stockholder, had no standing to seek review of the order.

In No. 815 it appears that Electric Bond & Share Company, a registered holding company, loaned $35,000,000 to a subsidiary, American and Foreign Power Company, which is also a registered holding company, and that the question of how this loan should be refinanced became the subject of a proceeding before the Commission.

The respondent Okin, as the owner of 9,000 out of a total of some 5,250,000 common shares of Electric Bond and Share, was allowed to participate in the proceeding, and opposed a proposition which the two companies submitted for a method of refinancing the loan. The Commission made an order approving the proposal; and Okin thereupon petitioned the court below to review the order. The gist of his complaint was that the refinancing as approved would reduce the value of his stock by reducing the interest income of Electric Bond and Share.

The Commission, before filing a certified copy of the transcript of the record upon which the order complained of was ntered, moved to dismiss Okin's petition upon two grounds. The first was that, within the meaning of § 24(a) Okin was not a person or party aggrieved. The second was that his objection to the order was frivolous. In response to this the court held that, while it might well be that Okin's attack lacked merit, if it did the result should be an affirmance of the order rather than a dismissal of the proceeding, and that jurisdiction to consider the merits was lacking in the absence of a transcript of the proceedings before the Commission. The motion was accordingly denied.

The Commission alleges that subsequently it filed a motion to dismiss or affirm, after having filed an abbreviated transcript containing so much of the record as was relied on for the purposes of the motion, and that this motion was denied without opinion. The record shows that a motion to dismiss or affirm was denied without opinion.

The Commission asks us to review both denials. The respondent insists we lack jurisdiction so to do, for the reason that neither order is final.

First. We hold that a stockholder having a substantial financial or economic interest distinct from that of the corporation which is directly and adversely affected by an order of the Commission, irrespective of any effect the order may have on the corporation, is a 'person aggrieved' within the meaning of Section 24(a).

The Commission does not question that American, as sole stockholder of Florida, has a substantial economic interest which is affected by the order; nor does it maintain that the term 'person aggrieved' is not broad enough to include one whose economic interest is affected by an order affecting his company under circumstances which make it inequitable that he be bound by the action or inaction of the management. It insists, however, that American's application for review in the court below was in the nature of a derivative action, commonly designated a stockholder's suit, to redress a wrong to his corporation. In this view, the Commission urges that, as Florida has itself sought a review of the order, it must be presumed that Florida will endeavor to protect the interest of its sole stockholder, American, and that American has consequently failed to show any necessity for its representing the interests of Florida.

The difficulty with this contention is that the action of the Commission in ordering the transfer of an item from surplus account to another account where the item will not be available for the payment of dividends does not deprive the corporation of any asset or adversely affect the conduct of its business in the manner it affects the petitioner, whereas the order has a direct adverse effect upon American as a stockholder entitled to dividends. It was because the court below overlooked this difference that it found support for its decision in Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway Co. v. United States, 281 U.S. 479, 50 S.Ct. 378, 74 L.Ed. 980. That was a suit brought under the Urgent Deficiencies Act, 28 U.S.C.A. § 47, to set aside an order of the Interstate Commerce Commission addressed to a carrier other than the plaintiff in the suit. The plaintiff was a minority stockholder of the carrier affected. This court pointed out that, under the accepted doctrine, the plaintiff had no standing to sue since in attempting to do so it was merely seeking in a derivative capacity, to vindicate the rights of the corporation.

In awarding a review of an administrative proceeding Congress has power to formulate the conditions under which resort to the courts may be had.3 The persons ac- corded a right to obtain review are, therefore, to be ascertained from the terms of the statute. Congress might here have provided that only parties to the administrative proceeding should have standing to obtain court review. When the bill which became the Public Utility Holding Company Act was introduced in the houses of Congress it provided that 'any person aggrieved by an order issued by the ommission in a proceeding under this title to which such person is a party may obtain a review of such order.'4 The provision was altered so as to read as it is now found in the statute. There seems to be no reason not to accord the statutory language its natural meaning in a case such as this, where the considerations which would move the corporation to seek review differ from those which may be relevant to the stockholder's interests. There may be situations in which the two interests are the same and where consequently the grievance ought not to support two proceedings identical in character. This, however, is not such a case; for it is possible that without any legal wrong to stockholders the corporation may elect not to prosecute, or to abandon, a proceeding for review.

This court has not allowed the usual criteria of standing to sue to deny persons who, in analogous cases under that doctrine, would ordinarily not be permitted to invoke court review, the benefit of such review under statutes embodying the same language as § 24(a).5 The same is true of the lower federal courts.6 In these instances the extension of the privilege to persons aggrieved was held to extend it to those not technically parties, and, therefore, not entitled, without the statutory provision, to initiate litigation in a court.

While the matter was not specifically mooted, it would seem that, until the instant cases, both the Commission and the courts have been of the view that persons situated as are the stockholders in these cases were given the statutory right to apply for review of a Commission order. In Circuit Courts of Appeals, and in this court, stockholders have been heard upon the merits of orders made against corporations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. 7

The further suggestion is made that to permit stockholders to resort to court review would create unnecessary inconvenience and expense since a stockholder entitled to apply to a court may go to the Circuit Court of Appeals of the circuit in which he resides or has his principal place of business. Thus, it is urged, the Commission might be called upon to answer suits in various circuits. But § 24(a) provides that the Commission may file a transcript of its proceedings in any circuit in which a proceeding has been initiated and thereupon the court in which the transcript is filed shall have exclusive jurisdiction. Thus, if the Commission had here elected to file a transcript in the Circuit Court of Appeals where Florida applied for review, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in which American's petition was filed, should have transferred that petition to the other court and all the complaints would have been heard by a single court and on the same record.8...

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