Securities and Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corporation, No. 254

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtFRANKFURTER
PartiesSECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION v. CHENERY CORPORATION et al
Decision Date01 February 1943
Docket NumberNo. 254

318 U.S. 80
63 S.Ct. 454
87 L.Ed. 626
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION

v.

CHENERY CORPORATION et al.

No. 254.
Argued Dec. 17, 18, 1942.
Decided Feb. 1, 1943.

Page 81

Mr. Chester T. Lane, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Spencer Gordon, of Washington, D.C., for respondents.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents, who were officers, directors, and controlling stockholders of the Federal Water Service Corporation (hereafter called Federal), a holding company registered under the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, c. 687, 49 Stat. 803, 15 U.S.C. § 79 et seq., 15 U.S.C.A. § 79 et seq., brought this proceeding under § 24(a) of the Act to review an order made by the Securities and Exchange Commission on September 24, 1941, approving a plan of reorganization for the company. Under the Commission's order, preferred stock acquired by the respondents during the period in which successive reorganization plans proposed by the management of the company were before the Commission, was not permitted to participate in the reorganization on an equal footing with all other preferred stock. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, with one judge dissenting, set the Commission's order aside, 75 U.S.App.D.C. 374, 128 F.2d 303, and because the question presented looms large in the administration of the Act, we brought the case here. 317 U.S. 609, 63 S.Ct. 52, 87 L.Ed. —-.

Page 82

The relevant facts are as follows. In 1937 Federal was a typical public utility holding company. Incorporated in Delaware, its assets consisted of securities of subsidiary water, gas, electric, and other companies in thirteen states and one foreign country. The respondents controlled Federal through their control of its parent, Utility Operators Company, which owned all of the outstanding shares of Federal's Class B common stock, representing the controlling voting power in the company. On November 8, 1937, when Federal registered as a holding company under the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, its management filed a plan for reorganization under §§ 7 and 11 of the Act, the relevant portions of which are copied in the margin.1 This plan, as well as two other plans later

Page 83

submitted by Federal, provided for participation by Class B stockholders in the equity of the proposed reorganized company. This feature of the plans was unacceptable to the Commission, and all were ultimately withdrawn.

Page 84

On March 30, 1940, a fourth plan was filed by Federal. This plan, proposing a merger of Federal, Utility Operators Company, and Federal Water and Gas Corporation, a wholly-owned inactive subsidiary of Federal, contained no provision for participation by the Class B stock. Instead, that class of stock was to be surrendered for cancellation, and the preferred and Class A common stock of Federal were to be converted into common stock of the new corporation. As the Commission pointed out in its analysis of the proposed plan, 'except for the 5.3% of new common allocated to the present holders of Class A stock, substantially all of the equity of the reorganized company will be given to the present preferred stockholders.'

During the period from November 8, 1937, to June 30, 1940, while the successive reorganization plans were before the Commission, the respondents purchased a total of 12,407 shares of Federal's preferred stock. (The total number of outstanding shares of Federal's preferred stock was 159,269.) These purchases were made on the over-the-counter market through brokers at prices lower than the book value of the common stock of the new corporation into which the preferred stock would have been converted under the proposed plan. If this feature of the plan had been approved by the Commission, the respondents through their holdings of Federal's preferred stock would

Page 85

have acquired more than 10 per cent of the common stock of the new corporation. The respondents frankly admitted that their purpose in buying the preferred stock was to protect their interests in the company.

In ascertaining whether the terms of issuance of the new common stock were 'fair and equitable' or 'detrimental to * * * the interest of investors' within § 7 of the Act, the Commission found that it could not approve the proposed plan so long as the preferred stock acquired by the respondents would be permitted to share on a parity with other preferred stock. The Commission did not find fraud or lack of disclosure, but it concluded that the respondents, as Federal's managers, were fiduciaries and hence under a 'duty of fair dealing' not to trade in the securities of the corporation while plans for its reorganization were before the Commission. It recommended that a formula be devised under which the respondents' preferred stock would participate only to the extent of the purchase prices paid plus accumulated dividends since the dates of such purchases. Accordingly, the plan was thereafter amended to provide that the preferred stock acquired by the respondents, unlike the preferred stock held by others, would not be converted into stock of the reorganized company, but could only be surrendered at cost plus 4 per cent interest. The Commission, over the respondents' objections, approved the plan as thus amended, and it is this order which is now under review.

We completely agree with the Commission that officers and directors who manage a holding company in process of reorganization under the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 occupy positions of trust. We reject a lax view of fiduciary obligations and insist upon their scrupulous observance. See Wormley v. Wormley, 8 Wheat. 421, 441, 5 L.Ed. 651; Southern Pacific Co. v. Bogert, 250 U.S. 483, 487, 488, 39 S.Ct. 533, 535, 63 L.Ed. 1099; and see Stone, The Public Influence of the Bar, 48 Harv.L.Rev. 1, 8-9. But to say that a man is a fidu-

Page 86

ciary only begins analysis; it gives direction to further inquiry. To whom is he a fiduciary? What obligations does he owe as a fiduciary? In what respect has he failed to discharge these obligations? And what are the consequences of his deviation from duty?

The Commission did not find that the respondents as managers of Federal acted covertly or traded on inside knowledge, or that their position as reorganization managers enabled them to purchase the preferred stock at prices lower than they would otherwise have had to pay, or that their acquisition of the stock in any way prejudiced the interests of the corporation or its stockholders. To be sure, the new stock into which the respondents' preferred stock would be converted under the plan of reorganization would have a book value—which may or may not represent market value considerably greater than the prices paid for the preferred stock. But that would equally be true of purchases of preferred stock made by other investors. The respondents, the Commission tells us, acquired their stock as the outside world did, and upon no better terms. The Commission dealt with this as a specific case, and not as the application of a general rule formulating rules of conduct for reorganization managers. Consequently, it is a vital consideration that the Commission conceded that the respondents did not acquire their stock through any favoring circumstances. In its own words, 'honesty, full disclosure, and purchase at a fair price' characterized the transactions. The Commission did not suggest that, as a result of their purchases of preferred stock, the respondents would be unjustly enriched. On the contrary, the question before the Commission was whether the respondents, simply because they were reorganization managers, should be denied the benefits to be received by the 6,000 other preferred stockholders. Some technical rule of law must have moved the Commission to single out the respondents and deny their preferred

Page 87

stock the right to participate equally in the reorganization. To ascertain the precise basis of its determination, we must look to the Commission's opinion.

The Commission stated that 'in the process of formulation of a 'voluntary' reorganization plan, the management of a corporation occupies a fiduciary position toward all of the security holders to be affected, and that it is subjected to the same standards as other fiduciaries with respect to dealing with the property which is the subject matter of the trust.' Applying by analogy the restrictions imposed on trustees in trafficking in property held by them in trust for others, Michoud v. Girod, 4 How. 503, 557, 11 L.Ed. 1076, the Commission ruled that even though the management does not hold the stock of the corporation in trust for the stockholders, nevertheless the 'duty of fair dealing' which the management owes to the stockholders is violated if those in control of the corporation purchase its stock, even at a fair price, openly and without fraud. The Commission concluded that 'honesty, full disclosure, and purchase at a fair price do not take the case outside the rule.'

In reaching this result the Commission stated that it was merely applying 'the broad equitable principles enunciated in the cases heretofore cited', namely, Pepper v. Litton, 308 U.S. 295, 60 S.Ct. 238, 84 L.Ed. 281; Michoud v. Girod, 4 How. 503, 557, 11 L.Ed. 1076; Magruder v. Drury, 235 U.S. 106, 119, 120, 35 S.Ct. 77, 81, 82, 59 L.Ed. 151; and Meinhard v. Salmon, 249 N.Y. 458, 164 N.E. 545, 62 A.L.R. 1. Its opinion plainly shows that the Commission purported to be acting only as it assumed a court of equity would have acted in a similar case. Since the decision of the Commission was explicitly based upon the applicability of principles of equity announced by courts, its validity must likewise be judged on that basis. The grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.

Page 88

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3546 practice notes
  • Securities and Exchange Commission,
    • United States
    • Federal Register May 18, 2001
    • May 18, 2001
    ...differ depending on the type and nature of the fiduciary relationship between the customer and the bank.\91\ \90\ SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 85-86, 87 L. Ed. 626, 63 S. Ct. 454 \91\ See 1 Austin Wakeman Scott and William Franklin Fratcher, The Law of Trusts 8.1 (4th ed. 1987) (``Whe......
  • E. Associated Coal Co. v. Director, No. 13-1553
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • July 3, 2014
    ...the grounds upon which the agency acted in exercising its powers were those upon which its action can be sustained." SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 95 (1943). We have held that this doctrine applies to black lung claims. See Henline, 456 F.3d at 426 ("[I]n reviewing an order of the Boar......
  • Texas v. Biden, 21-10806
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • December 13, 2021
    ...determinations, the court shall review the whole record or those parts of it cited by a party." 5 U.S.C. § 706; SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87 (1943) ("The grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.")......
  • United States v. Smith, Case No. 13–CR–297 (KMK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • April 4, 2014
    ...to further inquiry.... What obligations does he owe as a fiduciary?’ ” (alterations in original) (quoting S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 85–86, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943))). Would it matter that Tabone owed and violated a duty of care, but not a duty of loyalty; or a duty of l......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3534 cases
  • E. Associated Coal Co. v. Director, No. 13-1553
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • July 3, 2014
    ...the grounds upon which the agency acted in exercising its powers were those upon which its action can be sustained." SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 95 (1943). We have held that this doctrine applies to black lung claims. See Henline, 456 F.3d at 426 ("[I]n reviewing an order of the Boar......
  • Texas v. Biden, 21-10806
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • December 13, 2021
    ...determinations, the court shall review the whole record or those parts of it cited by a party." 5 U.S.C. § 706; SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87 (1943) ("The grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.")......
  • United States v. Smith, Case No. 13–CR–297 (KMK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • April 4, 2014
    ...to further inquiry.... What obligations does he owe as a fiduciary?’ ” (alterations in original) (quoting S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 85–86, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943))). Would it matter that Tabone owed and violated a duty of care, but not a duty of loyalty; or a duty of l......
  • Shi Liang Lin v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Docket No. 02-4611-ag.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • July 16, 2007
    ...1189 (9th Cir.2005) (en banc)) (emphasis added). Quoting Ventura—and echoing the basic principle of SEC v. Chenery Corp. (Chenery I), 318 U.S. 80, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943), that "an appellate court cannot intrude upon the domain which Congress has exclusively entrusted to an admini......
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