Great Northern Ry Co v. Merchants Elevator Co

Decision Date29 May 1922
Docket NumberNo. 202,202
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. John F. Finerty, of St. Paul, Minn., for petitioners.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 286-288 intentionally omitted] Mr. Harold S. Simpson, of Minneapolis, Minn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought by the Merchants' Elevator Company in a state court of Minnesota against the Great Northern Railway Company and the Director General to recover $80 alleged to have been exacted in violation of the carrier's tariff. That sum had been demanded by the carrier, under rule 10 of its tariff, as a reconsignment charge, at the rate of $5 a car, for 16 cars of corn shipped from points in Iowa and Nebraska to Willmar, Minn., and after inspection there rebilled to Anoka, a station beyond. The tariff rate from the points of origin via Willmar to Anoka was the same as to Willmar. Willmar had been named as destination in the original bill of lading, only because it is the place at which grain coming into the state by this route is inspected and graded under the laws of Minnesota and of the United States, and the carrier knew, or should have known, that fact. Immediately after inspection, disposition orders were given, and the original bills of lading were surrendered in exchange for billing to Anoka. Rule 10 read:- 'Diversion or reconsignment to points outside switching limits before placement: If a car is diverted, reconsigned or reforwarded on orders placed with the local freight agent or other designated officer after arrival of car at original destination, but before placement for unloading, * * * a charge of $5.00 per car will be made if car is diverted, reconsigned or reforwarded to a point outside of switching limits of original destination.'

The shipper contended that the case was within the exception known as exception (a), as amended by supplement 1, which provided that rules (including rule 10) shall not apply to:

'(a) Grain, seed (field), seed (grass), hay or straw, carloads, held in cars on track for inspection and disposition orders incident thereto at billed destination or at point intermediate thereto.'

Whether the charge was payable depended solely upon a question of construction; that is, whether the body of the rule or the exception to it applied. On this question there was room for reasonable difference of opinion. The carrier, relying partcularly upon Texas & Pacific Ry. Co. v. American Tie & Timber Co., 234 U. S. 138, 34 Sup. Ct. 885, 58 L. Ed. 1255, and Loomis v. Lehigh Valley R. R. Co., 240 U. S. 43, 36 Sup. Ct. 228, 60 L. Ed. 517, claimed seasonably that until the true construction of the tariff had been determined by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the trial court was without jurisdiction. That court overruled the objection, construed the exception to mean that cars of grain are exempted from rule 10 if held on track at billed destination for inspection and for 'disposition orders' incident to such inspection, held that the disposition order may be an order to make disposition by way of reconsignment to another destination and that forwarding to Anoka was such disposition, and entered judgment for the shipper. That judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the state on the authority of Reliance Elevator Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Ry. Co., 139 Minn 69, 165 N. W. 867. The case is here on writ of certiorari. Merritt v. United States, 255 U. S. 567, 41 Sup. Ct. 375, 65 L. Ed. 789. The tariff containing the rule under which the $5 charge was made was the only governing tariff. It had been duly filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The validity of the tariff, including the rule and exception, was admitted, and there was no dispute concerning the facts. The question argued before us is not whether the state courts erred in construing or applying the tariff, but whether any court had jurisdiction of the controversy, in view of the fact that the Interstate Commerce Commission had not passed upon the disputed question of construction.

The contention that courts are without jurisdiction of cases involving a disputed question of construction of an interstate tariff, unless there has been a preliminary resort to the Commission for its decision, rests in the main, upon the following argument: The purpose of the Act to Regulate Commerce (Comp. St. § 8563 et seq.) is to secure and preserve uniformity. Hence, the carrier is required to file tariffs establishing uniform rates and charges, and is prohibited from exacting or accepting any payment not set forth in the tariff. Uniformity is impossible, if the several courts, state or federal, are permitted, in case of disputed construction, to determine what the rate or charge is which the tariff prescribes. To insure uniformity the true construction must, in case of dispute, be determined by the Commission.

This argument is unsound. It is true that uniformity is the paramount purpose of the Commerce Act. But it is not true that uniformity formity in construction of a tariff can be attained only through a preliminary resort to the Commission to settle the construction in dispute. Every question of the construction of a tariff is deemed a question of law; and where the question concerns an interstate tariff it is one of federal law. If the parties properly preserve their rights, a construction given by any court, whether it be federal or state, may ultimately be reviewed by this court either on writ of error or on writ of certiorari; and thereby uniformity in construction may be secured. Hence, the attainment of uniformity does not require that in every case where the construction of a tariff is in dispute, there shall be a preliminary resort to the Commission.

Whenever a rate, rule, or practice is attacked as unreasonable or as unjustly discriminatory, there must be preliminary resort to the Commission. Sometimes this is required because the function being exercised is in its nature administrative in contradistinction to judicial. But ordinarily the determining factor is not the character of the function, but the character of the controverted question and the nature of the enquiry necessary for its solution. To determine what rate, rule or practice shall be deemed reasonable for the future is a legislative or administrative function. To determine whether a shipper has in the past been wronged by the exaction of an unreasonable or discriminatory rate is a judicial function. Preliminary resort to the Commission is required alike in the two classes of cases. It is required because the inquiry is essentially one of fact and of discretion in technical matters; and uniformity can be secured only if its determination is left to the Commission. Moreover, that determination is reached ordinarily upon voluminous and conflicting evidence, for the adequate appreciation of which acquaintance with many intricate facts of transportation is indispensable, and such acquaintance is commonly to be found only in a body of experts. But what construction shall be given to a railroad tariff presents ordinarily a question of law which does not differ in character from those presented when the construction of any other document is in dispute.

When the words of a written instrument are used in their ordinary meaning, their construction presents a question solely of law. But words are used sometimes in a peculiar meaning. Then extrinsic evidence may be necessary to determine the meaning of words appearing in the document. This is true where technical words or phrases not commonly understood are employed, or extrinsic evidence may be necessary to establish a usage of trade or locality which attaches provisions not expressed in the language of the instrument. Where such a situation arises, and the peculiar meaning of words, or the existence of a usage, is proved by evidence, the function of construction is necessarily preceded by the determination of the matter of fact. Where the controversy over the writing arises in a case which is being tried before a jury, the decision of the question of fact is left to the jury, with instructions from the court as to how the document shall be construed, if the jury finds that the alleged peculiar meaning or usage is established.1 But where the document to be construed is a tariff of an interstate carrier, and before it can be construed it is necessary to determine upon evidence the peculiar meaning of words or the existence of incidents alleged to be attached by usage to the transaction, the preliminary determination must be made by the Commission; and not until this determination has been made, can a court take jurisdiction of the controversy. If this were not so, that uniformity which it is the purpose of the Commerce Act to secure could not be attained. For the effect to be given the tariff might depend, not upon construction of the language—a question of law—but upon whether or not a particular judge or jury had found, as a fact, that the words of the document were used in the peculiar sense attributed to them or that a particular usage existed.

It may happen that there is a dispute concerning the meaning of a tariff which does not involve, properly speaking, any question of construction. The dispute may be merely whether words in the tariff were used in their ordinary meaning, or in a peculiar...

To continue reading

Request your trial
490 cases
  • Sw. Org. Project v. U.S. Dep't of the Air Force
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Mexico
    • 15 March 2021
    ...(citing Far East Conference v. United States, 342 U.S. 570, 72 S.Ct. 492, 96 L.Ed. 576 (1952) ; Great Northern R. Co. v. Merchants Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285, 42 S.Ct. 477, 66 L.Ed. 943 (1922) ). In turn, as the Air Force continues, the Tenth Circuit enumerates a five-factor standard that c......
  • So. Utah Wilderness v. Bureau of Land Management, No. 04-4071.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • 12 October 2005
    ...Conference v. United States, 342 U.S. 570, 574, 72 S.Ct. 492, 96 L.Ed. 576 (1952); See also Great N. R.R. Co. v. Merchants' Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285, 291, 42 S.Ct. 477, 66 L.Ed. 943 (1922). These two concerns—regulatory uniformity and agency expertise—drive the primary jurisdiction analys......
  • Engelhardt v. Consolidated Rail Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of New York
    • 12 September 1984
    ...of technical issues not within the realm of judicial decision-making. See, e.g., Great Northern Railroad v. Merchants Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285, 294-95, 42 S.Ct. 477, 480, 66 L.Ed. 943 (1922); Zapp v. United Transportation Union, 727 F.2d 617, 625 (7th Cir.1984); Augspurger v. Brotherhood ......
  • Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corp
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • 25 January 1971
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
2 books & journal articles
  • The Doctrine Of Primary Jurisdiction
    • United States
    • ABA Antitrust Library Handbook on the Scope of Antitrust Doctrines of implicit repeal
    • 1 January 2015
    ...1992) (same); Engelhardt v. Consol. Rail Corp., 756 F.2d 1368, 1369 (2d Cir. 1985) (same). 54. Great N. Ry. v. Merchants’ Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285, 291 (1922) (referral “is required because the enquiry is essentially one of fact and of discretion in technical matters, and uniformity can b......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • ABA Antitrust Library Handbook on the Scope of Antitrust Procedural issues
    • 1 January 2015
    ...142, 143, 145 Grand River Enters. Six Nations v. Beebe, 574 F.3d 929 (8th Cir. 2009), 106, 133 Great N. Ry. v. Merchants’ Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285 (1922), 182, 183 Green v. Peoples Energy Corp., 2003 WL 1712566 (N.D. Ill. 2003), 115, 116 Green v. State Bar of Tex., 27 F.3d 1083 (5th Cir. ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT