Csx Transp. Co. v. Novolog Bucks County

Decision Date05 September 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06-3431.,06-3431.
Citation502 F.3d 247
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Before: SLOVITER, ALDISERT and ROTH, Circuit Judges.


ROTH, Circuit Judge:

This appeal concerns the liability of entities such as warehousemen, pier operators, transloaders, and connecting carriers for demurrage charges, i.e., penalties assessed by railroads when shippers or recipients of freight do not timely return railcars to service after loading or unloading. The railroad in this case sought to assess demurrage charges against a transloader for delays in returning both inbound and outbound railcars to service. With respect to inbound freight, the transloader received loaded railcars on behalf of steel companies or others and forwarded the steel by ship toward mostly foreign destinations; with respect to outbound freight, it ordered empty railcars, which it then loaded with steel for transportation by the railroad to domestic destinations. The transloader objected to the assessment, arguing that it could not be subjected to charges under an agreement — namely, the transportation contract — to which it was not a party.

We hold that the consignee-agent provision of the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, 49 U.S.C. § 10743(a)(1), governs this dispute as to the charges assessed against Novolog as the consignee of freight. Under this provision a transloader or other such entity, if named on the bill of lading as the sole consignee, is presumptively liable for demurrage charges arising from unloading delays, unless it accepts the freight as the agent of another and notifies the carrier of its status in writing prior to delivery. Because the factual record was not sufficiently developed, however, we cannot determine what the bills of lading showed here; thus we vacate the District Court's order granting judgment to the transloader as a matter of law and remand for further proceedings.

With respect to the transloader's potential liability for demurrage charges in its role as the shipper (consignor) of freight, we refrain from announcing a holding because the question was not fully addressed or briefed, but we will vacate the District Court's grant of judgment on this claim as well and remand it for further consideration in light of our holding regarding consignee liability.

Finally, we hold that the District Court did not abuse its discretion when it refused to refer an issue to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), where the party moving for referral did not invoke the doctrine of primary jurisdiction until after the District Court had already decided the issue and the question was not one on which the expertise of the STB was not crucial to the decision.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The parties in this litigation are businesses engaged in the interstate transportation of freight. CSX Transportation, Inc. ("CSX") is a rail common carrier; Novolog Bucks County ("Novolog") is a private port with access to a rail-served industrial facility on the Delaware River.

As relevant here, the Novolog port functioned as a transfer point for the import, export, and domestic transportation of steel. Following instructions from various steel companies, CSX delivered to Novolog railcars loaded with steel, which Novolog unloaded and transferred onto other means of transportation. In addition, when Novolog so requested, CSX placed empty railcars at Novolog's disposal for loading with imported steel and transportation to domestic destinations. Novolog did not have an ownership interest in any of the shipments at issue here, but rather received and forwarded cargo on behalf of others and on their instructions.

According to CSX's Tariff, a person receiving its railcars for unloading, or ordering empty railcars for loading, had two days to do so and return the cars to service; if the cars were kept beyond this time, demurrage charges would be assessed.1 In particular, CSX's Tariff Item 8070-G provided that "[u]nless otherwise advised [,] consignor at origin or consignee at destination will be responsible for the payment of demurrage rates."

During the early part of 2003, fluctuations in the price of steel caused a significant increase in the amount of steel delivered for export to the Novolog facility. As a result, Novolog was unable to perform loading and unloading operations within the two-day time frame established by the Tariff, and CSX began charging Novolog demurrage fees, which totaled $260,304 by August, 2003. Novolog refused to pay, arguing it was not liable for demurrage since it was not a party to the bills of lading or other contracts regarding the shipments at issue and had no responsibility for or control over the volume of railcars that entered its facility.2 CSX then brought this action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania seeking payment of the demurrage charges, with interest, and attorney fees. It argued that Novolog was liable under the tariff because it was listed in the bills of lading either as the sole consignee for the freight (where the charges arose from unloading delays) or as the shipper (where the charges arose from loading delays).3

After discovery the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. CSX submitted documents appearing to show that in each of the instances for which CSX assessed demurrage charges against Novolog for delays in unloading, Novolog was listed as the sole consignee on the waybills, without any limiting designations such as "care of" or "account of," and in each of the instances for which CSX assessed demurrage charges against Novolog for loading delays, Novolog was listed as the shipper on the waybills.4 In addition CSX presented to the District Court many pages of computer spreadsheets purporting to reflect the fact that Novolog was named as either the consignee or the shipper on the corresponding bills of lading.

Novolog contested the admissibility of the documents presented by CSX and argued they were not actual bills of lading. It also submitted the deposition of David Reid, the CEO of Novolog during the relevant period, who testified that Novolog had not given permission to be listed as consignee for the freight in the railcars at issue and had not created or executed any of the bills of lading for the shipments that resulted in demurrage charges.

On May 24, 2006, the District Court denied both parties' summary judgment motions regarding the demurrage dispute. The court rejected CSX's theory that Novolog became subject to liability by accepting freight as the named consignee on the bills of lading or by ordering cars as the named shipper; it therefore declined to resolve the evidentiary issues or to make a finding of fact as to whether Novolog was indeed named as the consignee or as the shipper in the bills of lading. See CSX Transp. v. Novolog Bucks County, No. 04-CV-4018, 2006 WL 1451280, at *3 n. 3-5, *4 n. 6 (E.D.Pa. May 24, 2006). It held, however, that summary judgment was inappropriate because there remained an issue of material fact as to whether Novolog had entered a separate contractual agreement with CSX that might make it liable to the charges.

Following the issuance of the opinion denying the cross-motions for summary judgment, CSX filed an admission that "other than Novolog being the named consignee on bills of lading, and Novolog having accepted delivery of the loaded cars by CSX, CSX had no separate contractual relationship with Novolog governing the movement and/or disposition of the detained rail cars." As a result the District Court entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of Novolog on July 12, 2006.

CSX then filed a motion for reconsideration and an alternative motion for referral to the STB. The District Court denied the motion for reconsideration as untimely and denied the motion for referral "because [its] memorandum and order of May 24, 2006[was] not tantamount to an attack upon the reasonableness of the tariff terms." CSX filed this timely appeal.

II. Discussion
A. Jurisdiction

We have jurisdiction of this appeal from a final order of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The District Court had diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1337 over a cause of action arising under the Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq.

Although the subject matter jurisdiction of the District Court is not in question, before we turn to the merits we must address CSX's contention that the District Court, in rendering its decision, usurped the primary jurisdiction of the STB. CSX urges that in holding that it could not exact demurrage charges from parties such as Novolog, the District Court implicitly declared its tariff unreasonable, a determination reserved statutorily to the STB. See 49 U.S.C. § 10702 (mandating that rail carriers shall establish reasonable rates, rules, and practices); 49 U.S.C. § 10704.

The District Court refused to refer the matter to the STB on the grounds that its decision did not amount to a finding that CSX's rates were unreasonable. On appeal, CSX argues that although the District Court's opinion may not have expressly held CSX's demurrage tariff unreasonable, it nonetheless "gutted it and rendered it ineffective." Novolog responds that CSX's motion for conditional referral was untimely because it was filed beyond the time limit provided for motions for reconsideration and...

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