The Consolidated Gas Company was organized in 1884 by consolidation of six corporations then manufacturing, distributing and selling gas in New York City and has continued to carry on the business, making additions and extensions as required by the increasing demand. Chapter 125 Laws of New York 1906 required it to sell gas with illuminating power of twenty-two candles, at no more than eighty cents per thousand cubic feet. A suit brought soon after this act became effective to enjoin its enforcement, because confiscatory, was finally dismissed without prejudice, Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U.S. 19, and for many years thereafter the Company supplied gas at the prescribed rate. January 16, 1919, it instituted the present proceeding against the Attorney General and other public officers. The bill alleges that the statutory rate is confiscatory — prevents and will continue to prevent a fair return on the property used — and prays for an injunction.
A Master, appointed in May, 1919, heard testimony from day to day for eight months — about twenty thousand printed pages — and presented this to the court with his report and opinion, May 5, 1920. Having considered the results of actual operations during all of 1918 and the first eight months of 1919, and well known subsequent conditions, he concluded:
"On the basis of the prices, rates of pay, and costs prevailing during the eight months beginning January 1, 1919, the cost of making and distributing gas has been such as to allow a very small, if any return, on even the actual investment; and since September 1, 1919, the cost of making and distributing gas has been increased in a number of respects so that the fair inference is that the complainant company now finds itself without any return upon the investment.
In a carefully prepared opinion, while disagreeing with the Master concerning some valuations and resolving all doubts against the Company, the court held the prescribed rate had been confiscatory since January 1, 1918, and would continue so to be. 267 Fed. 231; 274 Fed. 986.
An amended decree — entered August 11, 1920 — enjoined enforcement of the act upon condition "that until March 1, 1921, or until the earlier promulgation of a gas-rate applicable to the plaintiff by some competent authority of the State of New York, the plaintiff shall neither charge nor collect for the sale of gas in the City of New York more than the sum of one dollar and twenty cents per thousand cubic feet." And also upon the further condition that it should impound, or adequately secure, collections above eighty cents per thousand cubic feet, for ultimate distribution in accordance with any rate so established.
A broad appeal was allowed in No. 257, September 9, 1920. In No. 258 an appeal, allowed November 10, 1920, brings up those parts of the August decree which imposed conditions upon continuation of the injunction.
Equity Rules 75 and 76
The fundamental question presented for determination was whether the eighty-cent rate had been confiscatory under conditions existing during 1918 and 1919 and probably would continue so to be. Considering the rulings here in Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co. and other cases, the answer required little more than an appreciation of facts not very difficult to ascertain. The Master's report and opinion disclosed careful and intelligent consideration of the whole matter. "Resolving all doubts against the plaintiff" and using valuations "pared down unsparingly," the trial court agreed with the Master's ultimate findings and ruled that to enforce the statute would result in confiscation. Since March 30, 1921, the Public Service Commission has had power to prescribe rates for appellee unrestricted by the maximum specified in the Act of 1906; but no such action has been taken. It did, however, authorize a rate of one dollar and forty cents, instead of eighty cents, for another company operating in New York City, effective after August 1, 1920, and has thus indicated its informed judgment. See Morrell v. Brooklyn Borough Gas Co., 231 N.Y. 398. We are, of course, aware of the enormous increase in cost of labor and materials since this court declared that appellee might possibly earn six per centum under the eighty-cent rate. In view of all these things, only very cogent reasons would
Appellants earnestly insist that they were denied fair and impartial trial both by the Master and the court. So far as it relates to the court, we dismiss the suggestion as frivolous. Undoubtedly during the many months devoted to hearings the Master talked too much and often unwisely; but, manifestly, appellants' counsel made the situation unnecessarily difficult and failed to support the Master's earnest efforts promptly to ascertain the essential facts. Looking at all the circumstances we are unable to conclude that any substantial right was denied. The size of the record, eight months of almost daily hearings and the Master's reiterated offers to hear properly prepared and helpful evidence show that abundant opportunity was given for presentation of appellants' cause. The Master wisely sought to exclude ill-advised cross examinations and other unimportant matter.
Since 1907 the Gas Company has been subject to supervision by a Commission empowered to prohibit unreasonable rates and the presumption is that any profits from its business were lawfully acquired. Municipal Gas Co. v. Public Service Commission, 225 N.Y. 89, 99. Mere past success could not support a demand that it continue to operate indefinitely at a loss. The public has no such right in respect of private property although dedicated to public use. When it became clear that the prescribed rate had yielded no fair return for more than a year and that this condition would almost certainly continue for many months the Company was clearly entitled to relief.
The claim that appellee had failed to supply gas of the prescribed candle power and therefore came into court
Complaint is also made because the Master admitted appellee's books in evidence. These books were kept in the ordinary course under general supervision of the Commission, appeared free from suspicion of dishonesty, were submitted to appellants' experts and were the only readily available sources of detailed information concerning the Company's affairs. In the circumstances we think no harm resulted from admitting them as prima facie evidence. Rowland v. St. Louis & San Francisco R.R. Co., 244 U.S. 106, 108.
The general doctrine applicable when rates are alleged to be confiscatory has been so often stated that present discussion of it is unnecessary. Knoxville v. Knoxville Water Co., 212 U.S. 1; Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U.S. 19; Des Moines Gas Co. v. Des Moines, 238 U.S. 153; Rowland v. St. Louis & San Francisco R.R. Co., 244 U.S. 106; Denver v. Denver Union Water Co., 246 U.S. 178; Lincoln Gas & Electric Light Co. v. Lincoln, 250 U.S. 256.
In No. 258 the Gas Company complains of the limit of one dollar and twenty cents per thousand cubic feet up to March 1, 1921, as a condition to continuation of the injunction, and also because sums above eighty cents per thousand were impounded for ultimate distribution in
It was within the court's discretion to grant the injunction upon terms and we cannot now say that the limitation upon charges amounted to abuse. But grave injustice may result from action of this kind and the power should be very cautiously exercised. See Morrell v. Brooklyn Borough Gas Co., 231 N.Y. 398. It was error to direct ultimate distribution of the impounded funds in accordance with any subsequently approved rate. Rate making is no function of the courts and should not be attempted either directly or indirectly. After declaring the eighty-cent rate confiscatory, the court should not have attempted, in effect, to subject the Company for an indefinite period to some unknown rate to be proclaimed in the future upon consideration of conditions then prevailing.
The amendatory decree of February was obtained long after appeals from the August decree had been granted and when the court had very limited power over the litigation. "One general rule in all cases (subject, however, to some qualifications) is that an appeal suspends the power of the court below to proceed further in the cause." Undoubtedly, after appeal the trial court may, if the purposes of justice require, preserve the status quo until decision by the appellate court. Hovey v. McDonald, 109 U.S. 150, 157. But it may not finally adjudicate substantial rights directly involved in the appeal. Merrimack River Savings Bank v. Clay Center, 219 U.S. 527, 534. See First National Bank v. State National Bank, 131 Fed. 430. The precise result of the February decree is somewhat doubtful, but we may treat it as an attempt to preserve the status quo in order that this court might finally and completely dispose of the whole matter. Thus interpreted the decree (No. 288) was within the court's
All impounded funds should be promptly released to the Gas Company subject only to deductions for such costs as are clearly assessable to the prevailing party. Costs of appeal No. 257 will be taxed to appellants; in No. 258 to the appellees. Modified as here indicated the decree below is affirmed. The cause will be remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.
It seems proper to add that we do not intend by anything said herein to intimate what would have been a reasonable rate for the sale of gas under the circumstances disclosed. The eighty-cent rate was confiscatory; the one dollar and twenty-cent maximum imposed by the court during a specified period as a condition to the injunction was a limitation in favor of the consumers.
Modified and Affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE CLARKE concurs in the result.
Equity Rule 76. In preparing the transcript on an appeal, especial care shall be taken to avoid the inclusion of more than one copy of the same paper and to exclude the formal and immaterial parts of all exhibits, documents and other papers included therein; and for any infraction of this or any kindred rule the appellate court may withhold or impose costs as the circumstances of the case and the discouragement of like infractions in the future may require. Costs for such an infraction may be imposed upon offending solicitors as well as parties. . . .