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U.S. Supreme Court

Southern Ry. Co. v. Seaboard Allied Milling Corp., 442 U.S. 444 (1979)

Southern Railway Co. v. Seaboard Allied Milling Corp.

No. 78-575

Argued April 23, 1979

Decided June 11, 1979*

442 U.S. 444


When petitioner railroads proposed a seasonal increase in the shipping rates for grain and soybeans, a number of shippers filed protests with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) requesting that it exercise its authority under § 15 (8)(a) of the Interstate Commerce Act (Act) to suspend such rates and to investigate the charges of their illegality. But the ICC issued an order declining such request, although it admonished the railroads to correct any such violations as might exist and directed that records be kept to protect the shippers' right to recover damages in such subsequent proceedings as they might bring pursuant to § 13(1) of the Act. The Court of Appeals held that the ICC had begun an investigation but had then erroneously terminated it without adequately investigating the charges of illegality and without supporting its decision with appropriate findings. The court concluded that a decision by the ICC to refuse to make or to terminate an investigation of the lawfulness of a proposed tariff is subject to judicial review, even though suspension orders are not, primarily because a single § 15(8)(a) proceeding initiated by the ICC is a better means of determining the lawfulness of rates than numerous § 13(1) complaint proceedings initiated by shippers.


1. To the extent that the Court of Appeals interpreted the ICC's order as a final decision that the proposed tariff was lawful, rather than simply a discretionary decision not now to investigate its lawfulness, it misconstrued the order. The order's express language belies any such interpretation, and the ICC did not reject the shippers' claim of illegality on the merits, but, on the contrary admonished the railroads about possible violations. Moreover, since the ICC expressly indicated that charges of violation of the Act could be resolved in § 13(1) proceedings, it is plainly incorrect to interpret its action as a prejudgment on the issue. Pp. 442 U. S. 452-454. chanrobles.com-red

Page 442 U. S. 445

2. The ICC's "no investigation" decision is not subject to judicial review. Pp. 442 U. S. 454-463.

(a) This conclusion is supported by § 15(8)(a)'s language of permission and discretion (the ICC "may, upon the complaint of an interested party . . . , order a hearing concerning the lawfulness of [a] rate"), and by the fact that the statute is silent on what factors should guide the ICC's decision. Pp. 442 U. S. 455-456.

(b) The structure of the Act also indicates that Congress intended to prohibit judicial review of the ICC's "no investigation" decision. Congress did not use permissive language such as that found in § 15(8)(a) when it wished to create reviewable duties under the Act, but instead used mandatory language such as in § 13(1). To treat § 15(8)(a) as if it were written in § 13(1)'s mandatory language would allow shippers to use the open-ended and ill-defined procedures in § 15(8)(a) to render obsolete the carefully designed and detailed procedures in § 13(1). Moreover, in view of the linkage between the ICC's power to investigate and its power to suspend proposed rates, the decisions holding that the merits of a suspension order are not reviewable, Aberdeen & Rockfish R. Co. v. SCRAP, 422 U. S. 289; United States v. SCRAP, 412 U. S. 669; Arrow Transportation Co. v. Southern R. Co., 372 U. S. 658, furnish further authority for holding that a "no investigation" decision is not reviewable. Pp. 442 U. S. 456-450.

(c) The legislative history of the Mann-Elkins amendments adding § 15(8) to the Act further supports nonreviewability of "no investigation" decisions. Prior to those amendments, the ICC had no authority to suspend rates, or to adjudicate their lawfulness in advance either of their becoming effective or of their being challenged in a § 13(1) complaint, and the adoption of § 15(8) was designed to avoid the disruptive consequences of judicial interference with the ICC's ratemaking process. To allow the courts to review § 15(8)(a) investigation decisions would amount to "backhanded approval" of these same consequences, and judicial review would once again undermine the ICC's primary jurisdiction by bringing courts into the adjudication of the lawfulness of rates in advance of administrative consideration. Pp. 442 U. S. 459-460.

3. There is no statutory support for a compromise position that, while not immediately reviewable, the ICC's decisions under § 15(8)(a) do become reviewable later, upon the completion of whatever proceedings may be initiated under § 13(1). While the § 13(1) remedy lessens the risk of harm from the ICC's initial refusal to investigate or suspend under § 15(8)(a), that remedy is independent of § 15(8)(a) proceedings. Pp. 442 U. S. 463-464.

570 F.2d 1349, reversed. chanrobles.com-red

Page 442 U. S. 446

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except POWELL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.


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