United States v. Western Pacific Railroad Company, No. 18

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtHARLAN
Citation352 U.S. 59,1 L.Ed.2d 126,77 S.Ct. 161
Decision Date03 December 1956
Docket NumberNo. 18
PartiesThe UNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. The WESTERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY et al

352 U.S. 59
77 S.Ct. 161
1 L.Ed.2d 126
The UNITED STATES, Petitioner,

v.

The WESTERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY et al.

No. 18.
Argued Oct. 15, 1956.
Decided Dec. 3, 1956.

Page 60

Mr. Morton Hollander, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Frederick Bernays Wiener, Washington, D.C., for respondents

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The three respondent railroads each sued in the Court of Claims to recover from the United States as shipper the difference between the tariff rates actually paid and those allegedly due on 211 Army shipments of steel aerial bomb cases filled with napalm gel.1 Approximately 200 of the shipments were made over the lines of respondents Bangor and Seaboard in 1944; the remainder were carried by respondent Western Pacific in 1948 and 1950.

Napalm gel is gasoline which has been thickened by the addition of aluminum soap powder. The mixture is inflammable but not self-igniting. In a completed incendiary bomb the napalm gel is ignited by white phosphorus contained in a burster charge, which in turn is fired by a fuse. These shipments, however, involved only the steel casings and the napalm gel; burster and fuse had not yet been added.

The carriers billed the Government at the high first-class rates established in Item 1820 of Consolidated Freight Classification No. 17 for 'incendiary bombs.' Pursuant to § 322 of the Transportation Act of 1942,2 the

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Government paid the bills of the Bangor and the Seaboard as presented; on post-audit, however, the General Accounting Office made deductions against these respondents' subsequent bills on other shipments, on the ground that the shipments in question should have been carried at the lower, fifth-class, rate applicable to gasoline in steel drums.3 The bills of the Western Pacific were initially paid at the lower rate. Respondents thereupon brought the present suits to recover the difference between the bills as rendered and as paid in the case of the Western Pacific, and the amount of the deductions in the other two cases.

The Government defended on three grounds: (1) that Item 1820 was inapplicable because absence of burster and fuse deprived these bombs of the essential characteristics of 'incendiary bombs,' and hence no additional sums were due; (2) that if this tariff item was held to govern, the tariff would be unreasonable as applied to these shipments, and that as to this issue the court proceedings should be suspended and the matter referred to

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the Interstate Commerce Commission; and (3) that in any event the Bangor and Seaboard were estopped from charging the '1820' rate.

The Court of Claims, relying on its earlier decision in Union Pacific R. Co. v. United States, 111 F.Supp. 266, 125 Ct.Cl. 390,4 entered summary judgment for respondents, two judges dissenting.5 It held that the shipments in question were 'incendiary bombs' within the meaning of Item 1820 of the tariff and thus entitled to the higher rate. In addition, while seemingly recognizing the Government's right to have the defense of unreasonableness determined by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the court ruled that the running of the two-year period of limitations provided by § 16(3) of the Interstate Commerce Act6 cut off the right of referral to the Commission. Lastly, the court overruled the defense of estoppel as to the respondents Bangor and Seaboard. Because of the importance of these questions in the administration of the Interstate Commerce Act, and alleged conflict among the lower courts on the issue of limitations, we granted certiorari. 350 U.S. 953, 76 S.Ct. 342.

I.

We are met at the outset with the question of whether the Court of Claims properly applied the doctrine of primary jurisdiction in this case; that is, whether it correctly allocated the issues in the suit between the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission and that of the court. In the view of the court below, the case presented two entirely separate questions. One was the question

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of the construction of the tariff—whether Item 1820 was applicable to these shipments. The second was the question of the reasonableness of that tariff, if so applied. The Court of Claims assumed, as it had in the Union Pacific case, supra, that the first of these—whether the '1820' rate applied—was a matter simply of tariff construction and thus properly within the initial cognizance of the court.7 The second—the reasonableness of the tariff as applied to these shipments—it seemed to regard as being within the initial competence of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Before this Court neither side has questioned the validity of the lower court's views in these respects. Nevertheless, because we regard the maintenance of a proper relationship between the courts and the Commission in matters affecting transportation policy to be of continuing public concern, we have been constrained to inquire into this aspect of the decision. We have concluded that in the circumstances here presented the question of tariff construction, as well as that of the reasonableness of the tariff as applied, was within the exclusive primary jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction, like the rule requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies, is concerned with promoting proper relationships between the courts and administrative agencies charged with particular regulatory duties. 'Exhaustion' applies where a claim is cognizable in the first instance by an administrative agency alone; judicial interference is withheld until the administrative process has run its course. 'Primary

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jurisdiction,' on the other hand, applies where a claim is originally cognizable in the courts, and comes into play whenever enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body; in such a case the judicial process is suspended pending referral of such issues to the administrative body for its views. General American Tank Car Corp. v. El Dorado Terminal Co., 308 U.S. 422, 433, 60 S.Ct. 325, 331, 84 L.Ed. 361.

No fixed formula exists for applying the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. In every case the question is whether the reasons for the existence of the doctrine are present and whether the purposes it serves will be aided by its application in the particular litigation. These reasons and purposes have often been given expression by this Court. In the earlier cases emphasis was laid on the desirable uniformity which would obtain if initially a specialized agency passed on certain types of administrative questions. See Texas & Pacific R. Co. v. Abilene Cotton Oil Co., 204 U.S. 426, 27 S.Ct. 350, 51 L.Ed. 553. More recently the expert and specialized knowledge of the agencies involved has been particularly stressed. See Far East Conference v. United States, 342 U.S. 570, 72 S.Ct. 492, 96 L.Ed. 576. The two factors are part of the same principle,

'now firmly established, that in cases raising issues of fact not within the conventional experience of judges or cases requiring the exercise of administrative discretion, agencies created by Congress for regulating the subject matter should not be passed over. This is so even though the facts after they have been appraised by specialized competence serve as a premise for legal consequences to be judicially defined. Uniformity and consistency in the regulation of business entrusted to a particular agency are secured, and the limited functions of review by the judiciary are more rationally exercised, by prelimi-

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nary resort for ascertaining and interpreting the circumstances underlying legal issues to agencies that are better equipped than courts by specialization, by insight gained through experience, and by more flexible procedure.' Id., 342 U.S. at pages 574—575, 72 S.Ct. at page 494.

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction thus does 'more than prescribe the mere procedural timetable of the lawsuit. It is a doctrine allocating the law-making power over certain aspects' of commercial relations. 'It transfers from court to agency the power to determine' some of the incidents of such relations.8

Thus the first question presented is whether effectuation of the statutory purposes of the Interstate Commerce Act requires that the Interstate Commerce Commission should first pass on the construction of the tariff in dispute here; this, in turn, depends on whether the question raises issues of transportation policy which ought to be considered by the Commission in the interests of a uniform and expert administration of the regulatory scheme laid down by that Act. Decision is governed by two earlier cases in this Court. In Texas & Pacific R. Co. v. American Tie & Timber Co., 234 U.S. 138, 34 S.Ct. 885, 58 L.Ed. 1255, a shipper attempted to ship oak railroad ties under a tariff for 'lumber.' The carrier rejected them, urging that such ties were not lumber. In a damage action expert testimony was received on the question. This Court, however, held that the Interstate Commerce Commission alone could resolve the question. The effect of the holding is clear: the courts must not only refrain from making tariffs, but, under certain circumstances, must decline to construe them as well. A particularization of such circumstances emerged in Great Northern R. Co. v. Merchants Elevator Co., 259 U.S. 285, 42 S.Ct. 477, 66 L.Ed. 943. There the Court held that where the

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question is simply one of construction the courts may pass on it as an issue 'solely of law.' But where words in a tariff are used in a peculiar or technical sense, and where extrinsic evidence is necessary to determine their meaning or proper application, so that 'the inquiry is essentially one of fact and of discretion in technical matters,' then the issue of tariff application must first go to the...

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1449 practice notes
  • Associated Press v. FCC, No. 22860.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • September 22, 1971
    ...Tel. & Tel. Co., supra note 2, 16 F.C.C.2d at 279. 41 Id. 42 Id. 43 Id. at 280. 44 See, e. g., United States v. Western Pac. R.R., 352 U.S. 59, 64-66, 69, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed.2d 126 (1956); United States v. Chesapeake & O. Ry., 352 U.S. 77, 80-81, 77 S.Ct. 172, 1 L.Ed.2d 140 (1956); W. P. ......
  • Associated Press v. FCC, No. 23833
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • July 12, 1971
    ...high. Texas & Pac. Ry. v. Abilene Cotton Oil Co., 204 U.S. 426, 27 S.Ct. 350, 51 L.Ed. 553 (1907); United States v. Western Pac. R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed. 2d 126 (1956). See also, Ambassador, Inc. v. United States, 325 U.S. 317, 324, 65 S.Ct. 1151, 89 L.Ed. 1637 (1945). Acc......
  • Concepcion v. Morton, No. CIV.A.98-3681(MLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • December 21, 2000
    ...alone; judicial interference is withheld until the administrative process has run its course." United States v. Western Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 63, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed.2d 126 (1956); see also Reiter v. Cooper, 507 U.S. 258, 269, 113 S.Ct. 1213, 122 L.Ed.2d 604 (1993) ("Where relief is ......
  • United States Public Interest Research Grp. v. Heritage Salmon, Civil No. 00-150-B-C (D. Me. 2/19/2002), Civil No. 00-150-B-C.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Court (Maine)
    • February 19, 2002
    ...doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies, Mass. v. Blackstone, 67 F.3d 981, 992 (1st Cir. 1995) (citing United States v. W. Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 64 (1956)), the First Circuit finds there are three factors that guide the courts' decision whether or not to defer a matter to an agency. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1444 cases
  • Associated Press v. FCC, No. 22860.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • September 22, 1971
    ...Tel. & Tel. Co., supra note 2, 16 F.C.C.2d at 279. 41 Id. 42 Id. 43 Id. at 280. 44 See, e. g., United States v. Western Pac. R.R., 352 U.S. 59, 64-66, 69, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed.2d 126 (1956); United States v. Chesapeake & O. Ry., 352 U.S. 77, 80-81, 77 S.Ct. 172, 1 L.Ed.2d 140 (1956); W. P. ......
  • Associated Press v. FCC, No. 23833
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • July 12, 1971
    ...high. Texas & Pac. Ry. v. Abilene Cotton Oil Co., 204 U.S. 426, 27 S.Ct. 350, 51 L.Ed. 553 (1907); United States v. Western Pac. R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed. 2d 126 (1956). See also, Ambassador, Inc. v. United States, 325 U.S. 317, 324, 65 S.Ct. 1151, 89 L.Ed. 1637 (1945). Acc......
  • Concepcion v. Morton, No. CIV.A.98-3681(MLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • December 21, 2000
    ...alone; judicial interference is withheld until the administrative process has run its course." United States v. Western Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 63, 77 S.Ct. 161, 1 L.Ed.2d 126 (1956); see also Reiter v. Cooper, 507 U.S. 258, 269, 113 S.Ct. 1213, 122 L.Ed.2d 604 (1993) ("Where relief is ......
  • United States Public Interest Research Grp. v. Heritage Salmon, Civil No. 00-150-B-C (D. Me. 2/19/2002), Civil No. 00-150-B-C.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Court (Maine)
    • February 19, 2002
    ...doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies, Mass. v. Blackstone, 67 F.3d 981, 992 (1st Cir. 1995) (citing United States v. W. Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 64 (1956)), the First Circuit finds there are three factors that guide the courts' decision whether or not to defer a matter to an agency. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • Table of authorities
    • United States
    • Introduction to environmental law: cases and materials on water pollution control - 2d Edition
    • July 23, 2017
    ...719 United States v. Weitzenhof, 35 F.3d 1275, 24 ELR 21504 (9th Cir. 1994) .............. 719 United States v. Western Pac. R.R., 352 U.S. 59 (1956) .............................................. 157 United States v. White, 322 U.S. 694 (1944) ....................................................
  • RACKETEER INFLUENCED AND CORRUPT ORGANIZATIONS
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...Aldea, 174 F. App’x 52, 59–60 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Steele, 685 F. 2d at 803–04). 195. See generally United States v. W. Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 59, 63–64 (1956) (discussing the concept of “primary jurisdiction”). 196. See Boyes v. Shell Oil Prods. Co., 199 F.3d 1260, 1265–66 (11th Cir. 20......
  • Introduction to the CWA and the administrative process
    • United States
    • Introduction to environmental law: cases and materials on water pollution control - 2d Edition
    • July 23, 2017
    ...process is suspended pending referral of such issues to the administrative body for its views. United States v. Western Pac. R.R. , 352 U.S. 59, 64 (1956). his doctrine is rarely used and generally applied in situations where the exhaustion doctrine is inapplicable but the court wishes to g......

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