Justice Scalia, delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether, when a shipper defends against a motor common carrier's suit to collect tariff rates with the claim that the tariff rates were unreasonable, the court should proceed immediately to judgment on the carrier's complaint without waiting for the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to rule on the reasonableness issue.
In many ways, this is a sequel to our decision in Maislin Industries, U. S., Inc. v. Primary Steel, Inc., 497 U.S. 116 (1990). The facts of the two cases follow a pattern that has been replicated many times in the era of "deregulation" following enactment of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, 94 Stat. 793: A motor carrier negotiates with a shipper rates less than
The shippers here are petitioners California Consolidated Enterprises (CCE) and Peter Reiter. Between 1984 and 1986, they were engaged in the business of brokering motor carrier transportation, which essentially involves serving as a middleman between motor carriers and the shipping public. During that period, petitioners tendered shipments to Carolina Motor Express, Inc., which was operating as a certified motor carrier in interstate commerce subject to regulation by the ICC. Carolina and petitioners negotiated rates for several shipments that were lower than the applicable tariff
In 1986, Carolina filed for bankruptcy and respondent Langdon Cooper was appointed trustee. Respondent Mark & Associates of North Carolina was retained to conduct an audit of Carolina's shipping bills, which revealed undercharges (below applicable tariff rates) in the amount of $58,793.03 on shipments made by CCE and $13,795.73 on shipments made by Reiter. Respondents brought adversary proceedings against petitioners in Bankruptcy Court to collect those amounts. Petitioners raised the standard "unreasonable practice" and "unreasonable rate" claims, and moved the Bankruptcy Court to stay proceedings and to refer those claims to the ICC. The Bankruptcy Court refused to do so and entered judgment for respondents. In re Carolina Motor Express, Inc., 84 B.R. 979 (WDNC 1988). In 1989 (prior to our decision in Maislin ), the District Court reversed and held that the "unreasonable practice" defense should be referred to the ICC. The Court of Appeals, after holding respondents' appeal in abeyance until our decision in Maislin, reversed the District Court. In re Carolina Motor Express, Inc., 949 F.2d 107 (CA4 1991). It held that, in light of Maislin, there was no need to refer the "unreasonable practice" issue to the ICC, 949 F. 2d, at 109; and that the "unreasonable rate" claim was no obstacle to the carrier's action, since even if the tariff rates were unreasonable the "filed rate" doctrine requires the shipper to pay them first and then seek relief in a separate action for damages under § 11705(b)(3), id., at 110-111. We granted certiorari. 504 U.S. 907 (1992).
The ICA requires carriers' rates to be "reasonable," § 10701(a), and gives shippers an express cause of action against carriers for damages (called "reparations" in the precodification version of the statute, see 49 U. S. C. §§ 304a(2),
Under 49 U. S. C. § 11706(c)(2), a shipper "must begin a civil action to recover damages under [§ 11705(b)(3)] within two years after the claim accrues," which occurs "on delivery or tender of delivery by the carrier," § 11706(g). That limitation
One major consequence does attach to the fact that an unreasonable-rate claim is technically a counterclaim rather than a defense: A defense cannot possibly be adjudicated separately from the plaintiff's claim to which it applies; a counterclaim can be. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) permits a district court to enter separate final judgment on any claim or counterclaim, after making "an express determination that there is no just reason for delay." See Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Mackey, 351 U.S. 427 (1956); Cold Metal Process Co. v. United Engineering & Foundry Co., 351 U.S. 445 (1956). This power is largely discretionary, see CurtissWright Corp. v. General Electric Co., 446 U.S. 1, 10 (1980), to be exercised in light of "judicial administrative interests as well as the equities involved," id., at 8, and giving due weight to "`the historic federal policy against piecemeal appeals,' " ibid. (quoting Sears, supra, at 438).
Nothing in the ICA provides that, in an action by a carrier to collect undercharges, a § 11705(b)(3) counterclaim is not subject to the normally applicable provisions of the Federal Rules. Respondents contend that the so-called "filed rate doctrine" gives them absolute entitlement to judgment on their undercharge claims, without defense or counterclaim.
Contrary to respondents' contention, the preclusive effect of the filed rate doctrine over reparations counterclaims is not established by our opinion in Crancer v. Lowden, 315 U.S. 631 (1942). There, shippers sued by a rail carrier for payment of tariff rates challenged them as unreasonable, and sought to stay the collection action until the ICC had an opportunity to rule on that issue. The District Court denied the stay and entered judgment for the carrier. But unlike the present petitioners, the shippers in Crancer had no counterclaim; they had already instituted an administrative reparations proceeding (as the ICA allowed for rail carriage) before they were sued in district court, see Reply Brief for Petitioners 13 and Brief for Respondents 18, in Crancer v. Lowden, O. T. 1941, No. 505, which precluded filing a reparations claim in district court. See 49 U. S. C. § 9 (1946 ed.). Moreover, all that Crancer held was that "there was no abuse of discretion by the trial judge," since the equities balanced against waiting for the ICC's determination. 315
Respondents raise two arguments to the effect that petitioners' § 11705(b)(3) counterclaims are not yet cognizable in court. First, respondents argue that there exists what they denominate as a "pay first" rule, whereby payment of the tariff rate is a "prerequisite to litigating the rate reasonableness issue." Brief for Respondents 23. See also Milne Truck Lines, Inc. v. Makita U. S. A., Inc., 970 F.2d 564, 572 (CA9 1992) (embracing similar theory). That argument would have merit if the holding in United States ex rel. Louisville Cement Co. v. ICC, 246 U.S. 638 (1918), were still good law. In that case, this Court held that a shipper's cause of action for reparations did not accrue "until payment had been made of the unreasonable charges." Id., at 644. The opinion noted that "if Congress had intended that the cause of action of the shipper to recover damages for unreasonable charges should accrue when the shipment was received, or when it was delivered by the carrier, . . . a simple and obvious form for expressing that intention would have been used." Ibid. Within two years, Congress enacted a simple and obvious provision stating that any "cause of action in respect of a shipment of property shall . . . be deemed to accrue upon delivery or tender of delivery." Transportation Act of 1920, § 424, 41 Stat. 492. That provision survives in substantially the same form in text now codified at 49 U. S. C. § 11706(g). While it is theoretically possible for a statute to create a cause of action that accrues at one time for the purpose of calculating when the statute of limitations begins to run, but at another time for the purpose of bringing suit, we will not infer such an odd result in the absence of any such indication in the statute. We therefore hold that
Second, respondents contend that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction requires petitioners initially to present their unreasonable-rate claims to the ICC, rather than to a court. That reflects a mistaken understanding of primary jurisdiction, which is a doctrine specifically applicable to claims properly cognizable in court that contain some issue within the special competence of an administrative agency. It requires the court to enable a "referral" to the agency, staying further proceedings so as to give the parties reasonable opportunity to seek an administrative ruling.
The result that respondents seek would be produced, not by the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, but by the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. Where relief is available from an administrative agency, the plaintiff is ordinarily required to pursue that avenue of redress before proceeding to the courts; and until that recourse is exhausted, suit is premature and must be dismissed. See Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51 (1938); Heckler v. Ringer, 466 U.S. 602, 617, 619, and n. 12 (1984). That doctrine is inapplicable to petitioners' reparations claims, however, because the ICC has long interpreted its statute as giving it no power to decree reparations relief. Shortly after enactment of the provision now codified at § 11705(b)(3), the ICC said that the law did not "grant the Commission any initial jurisdiction . . . with respect to the award of reparations"; rather, "shippers' recourse must be to the courts," which would "refer" the issue of rate reasonableness to the Commission. Informal Procedure for Determining Motor Carrier and Freight Forwarder Reparation, 335 I. C. C. 403, 413 (1969). The ICC continues to adhere to that view. Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 9, n. 6; NITL—Petition to Institute Rulemaking on Negotiated Motor Common Carrier Rates, 3 I. C. C. 2d, at 106107; NITL—Petition to Institute Rulemaking on Negotiated Motor Common Carrier Rates, 5 I. C. C. 2d, at 625, 630-631. We find that to be at least a reasonable interpretation of the statute, and hence a binding one. Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
Nor can we discern within the ICA an intent that, even though the ICC cannot decree relief, ICC determination of
Since we have concluded that petitioners' unreasonablerate claims are subject to the ordinary rules governing counterclaims, the judgment below must be reversed. Neither the Court of Appeals nor the District Court made the "express determination" required under Rule 54(b) for entry of a separate judgment on respondents' claims, and we cannot say categorically that it would be an abuse of discretion either to grant or to deny separate judgment. In the ordinary case, where a carrier is solvent and has promptly initiated suit, the equities favor separate judgment on the principal claim: referral of the unreasonable-rate issue could produce substantial delay, and tariff rates not disapproved by the ICC are legal rates, binding on both the shipper and the carrier. See Keogh v. Chicago & Northwestern R. Co., 260 U.S. 156, 163 (1922); Arizona Grocery Co. v. Atchison, T. & S. F. R. Co., 284 U.S. 370, 384 (1932); Lowden v. Simonds-Shields-Lonsdale Grain Co., 306 U.S. 516, 520 (1939). The equities change, however, when the suing carrier is in bankruptcy. Indeed, we have previously held that even a "threat of insolvency" of the party seeking separate judgment is a factor weighing against it. See CurtissWright, 446 U. S., at 12. Even so, we cannot say that insolvency is an absolute bar. Conceivably, a district court could determine that other equities favor separate judgment—for example, a threat that the shipper may become insolvent, which Rule 62(h) would allow a court to protect against by
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice Blackmun dissents.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for American Freight System, Inc., by Norman E. Beal; for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters by Richard N. Gilberg, Babette Ceccotti, Marc J. Fink, and William W. Pollock; and for Lloyd T.Whitaker as Trustee forthe Estate of Olympia Holding Corp. by Kim D. Mann.
Leonard L. Gumport filed a brief pro se as amicus curiae.