Petroleum Exploration v. Public Service Commission of Kentucky

Decision Date02 May 1938
Docket NumberNo. 705,705
Citation304 U.S. 209,82 L.Ed. 1294,58 S.Ct. 834
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

Messrs. W. J. Brennan, and E. C. O'Rear, of Frankfort, Ky., for appellant.

Mr. J. W. Jones, of Frankfort, Ky., for appellees.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from a final decree dismissing appellant's bill of complaint for want of jurisdiction in equity. It was entered by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky sitting with three judges under Judicial Code, § 266, as amended, 28 U.S.C.A. § 380. 21 F.Supp. 254. The appellant sought to enjoin the Public Service Commission of Kentucky from prosecuting an investigation of wholesale rates for gas marketed by contract in Kentucky by appellant, on the ground that any regulation of the rates charged by appellant to its customers would be beyond the statutory power of the Commission, since the appellant was not a public utility, and would result in a deprivation of property without due process, a denial of equal protection of the laws, and a violation of the contracts clause of the Federal and State Constitutions, affecting contracts entered into prior to the passage of the regulatory act1 of the General Assembly of Kentucky. As grounds for equitable relief, it was alleged that there was no adequate remedy and that irreparable injury would be inflicted upon appellant by the large expense entailed in preparation for the investigation.

Appellant is a corporation solely of the State of Maine, engaged in the production and purchase of natural gas at various fields in Kentucky and the transmission of that gas through wholly intrastate pipe lines to distributing agencies at the 'city gates' of various municipalities of that Commonwealth. Appellant sells to three distributing agencies: A partnership, a corporation entirely free of connection with appellant, and a corporation in which appellant owns a dominant interest. It offers to sell and sells its commodity by separate contracts only to the distributing agencies named in the bill. All of these agencies, with one immaterial exception, are the owners of unexpired franchises purchased from the respective municipalities which they serve. Either by these franchises or by supplementary contract, the rates are fixed for retail sales of gas. Acting pursuant to statutory provisions authorizing investigations of the rates of defined utilities, the Public Service Commission of Kentucky issued on May 29, 1937, an order, pertinent provisions of which are set forth in the margin,2 reciting that appellant is an operating utility subject to the Commission's jurisdiction, setting a date for a public hearing, and ordering appellant to appear at such hearing and present evidence of the reasonableness of its rates and charges, and also to make its records available for examination.

Appellant filed a plea to the Commission's jurisdiction, in substance setting up the objections subsequently urged in the bill under consideration. The Commission overruled this plea and reset the investigation for hearing on the merits. The appellant filed an application for a rehearing of this order. Though the Commission has not formally passed upon this application, it admits that it intended and threatened to proceed with the investigation, determine and fix a fair rate for appellant's gas, and that it would have so proceeded but for the temporary restraining order obtained by appellant upon the filing of the bill in question.

Appellant's bill alleged that it was the obvious purpose of the Commission to lower appellant's rates; that these rates were not subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of the Commission; that any reduction would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and impair the obligations of its contracts, in contravention of the contracts clauses of the State and Federal Constitutions, Const.Ky. § 19; Const.U.S. art. 1, § 10. It was further alleged that the investigation, and the orders entered therein, are unlawful and unreasonable, and, if further prosecuted would put appellant to considerable unlawful and needless expense. The Commission filed an answer asserting that appellant was subject to its regulatory jurisdiction. It denied any purpose on its part to attempt to lower the contract price which appellant charged the distributing agencies but averred that it would institute and conduct a special investigation and proceeding to determine a fair and reasonable price or rate to be charged by appellant and to fix said price or rate.

The majority opinion of the District Court held that, as the order challenged could be enforced only by judicial proceedings, there existed no immediately threatened irreparable injury or damage to the appellant within the equity jurisdiction of the District Court. Without any consideration of the merits, the bill was dismissed. The assignments of error attack this conclusion. We affirm the decree of the District Court.

First.—The point is made by appellees that injunction is prohibited by the Johnson Act of May 14, 1934, c. 283, § 1, 48 Stat. 775, 28 U.S.C. § 41(1), 28 U.S.C.A. § 41(1). This act withdraws from the district courts jurisdiction of any suit to enjoin the enforcement of any order of a state administrative commission where such order '(1) affects rates chargeable by a public utility, (2) does not interfere with interstate commerce, and (3) has been made after reasonable notice and hearing, and where a plain, speedy, and efficient remedy may be had at law or in equity in the courts of such State.' The Johnson Act does not apply here because the order complained of, i.e., that of May 29, 1937, was entered without notice or hearing. Though it is entitled a 'Notice of Investigation and Order to Show Cause,' which would be an appropriate method of initiating an investigation, in fact the order commands appellant to produce certain evidence on a designated date, and not merely to show cause on that date why evi- dence should not be produced. The order of June 29, 1937, overruling the plea to the jurisdiction, is not final but is pending on an application for rehearing.

Second.—This proceeding was begun under the provisions of section 24(1) of the Judicial Code, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 41(1), 28 U.S.C.A. § 41(1). Jurisdiction was challenged by the Commission on the ground that the value of the matter in controversy was not in excess of $3,000. To show the requisite amount, appellant alleged that it would be necessary to expend $25,000 to present the evidence required by the order. It was found by the District Court from the testimony at the trial that 'the expense to plaintiff of complying with said orders would be more than $3000.00 in employing appraisers, geologists, engineers, accountants, etc., to show the original and historical cost of its properties, cost of reproduction as a going concern, and other elements of value recognized by the law of the land for rate making purposes.'

The purpose of this proceeding is to stop the investigation of the rates under the order issued. Since the necessary expense of producing the information demanded by the order exceeds the jurisdictional amount, the value of the matter in controversy is at least this sum. This purpose or object is analogous to those sought in injunctions to restrain a continuing trespass, where the value of the matter in controversy includes the cost of remedying the condition as part of the value of the matter in controversy, namely, the prevention of interference with plaintiff's rights.3 Other examples are found in a suit to enjoin the enforcement of a tax statute, where the amount of the tax is the value of the matter in controversy,4 and in a suit to enjoin enforcement of an order to install and maintain a track, where the value of the matter in controversy is the cost of compliance.5 Where 'expenses incident to compliance' with a regulatory statute exceed $3,000, the jurisdiction is clear.6 There is no contention here either that the Commission's order left appellant with any less expensive alternative, or that the worth of appellant's entire business is less than $3,000. In undertaking to enjoin this investigation, the cost incident to making a showing required by the Commission is not collateral or incidental to the purpose of the injunction, but a threatened expense from which relief is sought. Whether such irrecoverable cost is an irreparable injury against which equity will protect is considered later in this opinion. The District Court had jurisdiction of the cause, as a federal court.

Third.—We next consider whether the suit must be dismissed pursuant to section 267 of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 384, 28 U.S.C.A. § 384, which declares that no suit in equity shall be sustained 'where a plain, adequate, and complete remedy may be had at law.' Though this contention was not raised below by the Commission, 'either the trial court or the appellate may, of its own motion, take the objection.'7 For determination of the adequacy of this rem- edy we must here assume the allegations of appellant that, unless an injunction is granted, irreparable injury will flow from its compliance with the order of May 29.

It is settled that no adequate remedy at law exists, so as to deprive federal courts of equity jurisdiction, unless it is available in the federal courts. 8 If appellant ignores the Commission's order, action for recovery of penalties for the violation of the order may be instituted by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Ky.Stat.Ann., Carroll's 8th Ed., Baldwin's 1936 Revision, §§ 3952-13 and 3952-61. But this proceeding could neither be begun nor removed to the federal court. Apart from the difficulty of maintaining such an action in the federal courts, in view of its penal nature, the State would be...

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