APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY.
Taft, Holmes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Sanford; Stone took no part in the consideration of this case.
MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an appeal from a decree of the district court -- three judges sitting, § 266, Judicial Code -- which granted a temporary injunction restraining the enforcement of certain telephone rates.
The company owns and operates a telephone system in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. In the territory served in New Jersey there is a number of local areas. Service between telephones in the same area is exchange service, and that between telephones in different areas is toll service. The latter includes both intrastate and interstate business. The system is used to give exchange and toll service to all subscribers. For about 10 years prior to the commencement of this suit the rates in New Jersey remained at substantially the same level. March 6, 1924, the company filed with the Board of Public Utility Commissioners, to take effect April 1, 1924, a schedule providing for an increase of rates for exchange service in New Jersey. The Board suspended the proposed rates pending an investigation as to their reasonableness. December 31, 1924, the increase was disallowed, and the company was required to continue to serve at the existing rates. The Board found that the value of the company's property in New Jersey, as of June 30, 1924, was $76,370,000; that a rate of return of 7.53 per cent. producing from $5,750,000 to $6,000,000 would be a fair return for that year; that the amount charged by the company in 1924 for depreciation, $3,452,000, was excessive, and that $2,678,000 was sufficient. And the Board found that net earnings in 1924 would be $4,449,000, -- less than the fair return by at least $1,300,000.
The company's accounts are kept according to the uniform system of accounts for telephone companies prescribed by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Charges are made to cover the depreciation in the elements of the plant which for one cause or another will go out of use. These charges are made month by month against depreciation in the operating expense accounts, and corresponding credits are entered in the depreciation reserve account. When a unit or element of the property is retired, there is no charge to operating expense, but its original cost less salvage is charged to the reserve account. December 31, 1923, the company's books showed a credit balance in depreciation reserve accounts of $16,902,530. This was not set aside or kept in a separate fund, but was invested in the company's telephone plant. The Board prescribed a rule for the determination of depreciation expenses to be charged by the company in 1925 and subsequent years. It declared that the credit balance was more than required for the maintenance of the property, and directed that $4,750,000 of that amount be used by the company to make up deficits in any year when earnings are less than a reasonable return as found by the Board. And it said, "But having made such charges in the past, future charges beginning January 1st, 1925 may be deducted from the normal charge until such time as at least $4,750,000 of the excess is absorbed as hereinafter provided." The effect of the order is to require that if total operating expenses deducted from revenues leaves less than a reasonable return in 1925 or a subsequent year, there shall be deducted from the expense of depreciation in that year and added to the net earnings a sum sufficient to make up the deficiency; then, by appropriate book entries, the resulting shortage in depreciation expense is to be made good out of the balance in the reserve account built up in prior years.
On the application for a temporary injunction, the company attacked the findings of the Board as to rate
of return, property value, and expense of depreciation. And it contended that the charges on account of depreciation in earlier years were not excessive, and that in any event the company could not be compelled to make up deficits in future net earnings out of the depreciation reserves accumulated in the past.
The record shows that the rates in effect prior to the temporary injunction were not sufficient to produce revenue enough to pay necessary operating expenses and a just rate of return on the value of the property. There is printed in the margin*fn1 a statement made by the Board and included in its decision, giving a comparison of results
of operation in 1924 under these rates as found by the Board and as estimated by the company. And, in opposition to the motion for the temporary injunction, the Board ...