UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
September 27, 1957
BRESWICK & CO., Randolph Phillips and Myron Neisloss, as common stockholders of Alleghany Corporation, individually and on behalf of all other common stockholders of Alleghany Corporation similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
UNITED STATES of America, Interstate Commerce Commission, Alleghany Corporation, et al., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: WALSH
Plaintiffs, common stockholders of Alleghany Corporation, by this action seek review of an order of the Interstate Commerce Commission authorizing Alleghany to issue certain stock.
We had previously held that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to promulgate the order and that the issue was subject to the Investment Company Act, 15 U.S.C.A. § 80a-1 et seq. The Supreme Court reversed this holding and held that the issue was subject to the Interstate Commerce Act. It remanded the case to us for consideration of plaintiffs' claim that the issue violated that Act.
The stock in controversy consisted of 1,367,440 shares of 6% preferred stock having a par value of $ 10 to be offered ten for one in exchange for the pre-existing 5 1/2% preferred, having a par value of $ 100. It was to be convertible at the option of the holder into common stock, according to a formula which resulted in an actual conversion ratio of 4.7 shares of common for each share of new preferred, upon payment to the corporation of $ 3.75 per common share. The issue of the common stock necessary for conversion was also authorized.
Plaintiffs contend that the Commission's findings as to the fairness of the issue are inadequate and are in conflict with undisputed facts. They claim in substance that the worth of the old preferred was overestimated by giving it a value of $ 100 par value, plus $ 5 redemption premium, plus $ 132 accumulated dividends; that it was improper to include the redemption premium and to assume that the dividends would be readily payable in cash. They suggest that the market value, which never previously exceeded 170, was more realistic and should have been used. They also claim that the value of the new preferred was underestimated; that in particular the value of the fifteen year non-call period allowed for conversion was overlooked entirely, although it became markedly apparent when, after the plan of exchange was announced, the market price of the preferred exceeded the $ 237 value assumed for purposes of the exchange, by almost fifty percent. In other words, whereas the old preferred had never sold above $ 170 prior to the announcement of the plan, its equivalent in the new preferred traded upon a 'when issued' basis rose to 352 1/2 prior to the suspension of trading. They claim that the excess of 352 1/2 over 170 represents a 'premium' to the preferred stockholders, an excessive benefit at the expense of the corporation and thus the common stockholders.
In answer it is contended that the offer of the exchange was the only feasible way in which to get rid of the burden of accumulated dividends without requiring a large outlay of cash; that the benefits to be given the new preferred in order to make the exchange attractive was primarily a matter of business judgment; that the market action of the preferred does not indicate that an excessive premium was given it at the expense of the common because a substantial part of the increase paralleled an increase in the common into which the new preferred was convertible.
As to these contentions of the plaintiffs, we believe that the facts disclosed to the Commission and available as matters of public knowledge were enough to put an expert body on notice of all the alleged undesirable qualities of the issue; that the questions so raised were within the range of expert judgment reserved to the Commission; that its findings thereon satisfy the statute; and that we may not substitute our views for those it expressed.
Plaintiffs also protest that the Commission conditioned its approval upon the change in plan never ratified by the stockholders. The proposed plan had provided that the conversion ratio should be fixed as of the fifth market day following Commission approval. The Commission conditioned its approval upon modification of the exchange offer so that the conversion ratio would be fixed as of the last market day preceding its order. The Commission has power to grant the application 'upon such terms and conditions as the commission may deem necessary or appropriate in the premises'. 41 Stat. 495, 49 U.S.C.A. § 20a(3). The question whether the exchange would involve a violation of some contractual arrangement with the stockholders is not before us. This contention does not affect the validity of the Commission's order.
As to matters of procedure, plaintiffs complain that they were entitled to an evidentiary hearing before the Commission and that they were deprived of that right. This point was raised before the Supreme Court and, if not decided adversely to them we understand the Supreme Court's statement that the point is governed by section 20a(6) of the Interstate Commerce Act, 41 Stat. 495, 49 U.S.C.A. § 20a(6), to restrict our consideration to the effect of that section. Under that section the Commission has almost free discretion as to how it may best proceed with its investigation. It was not required as a matter of law to hold evidentiary hearings to enable plaintiffs to amplify by cross-examination of corporate officers points already ascertainable from facts before it. Plaintiffs urge the admitted complexity of the plan and the heavy investment in preferred stock by the dominant officer of Alleghany just before announcement of the plan. They also show that by refusing to thus open its investigation the Commission apparently missed evidence subsequently supplied to the Securities and Exchange Commission, such as a memorandum from Alleghany's files discussing the value of the non-call period, the mimutes of the board meeting which are said to show that this feature was not in the plan when originally approved, and an analysis of the market action of earlier conversion warrants which might have foretold the market action of the preferred after the present plan closed. Loss of this type of evidence is, however, a known risk which an agency takes when it declines to open its investigation to controversy. The Commission is given that power by statute.
There nevertheless does remain a major problem -- the need for validation of Alleghany's acquisition of the Central system as a prerequisite to the Commission's grant of the relief requested. We do not raise again the question of jurisdiction;
but we now raise the question of findings necessary as a preliminary to relief on the merits, action necessary if the order of the Commission is to conform with the Interstate Commerce Act.
The facts now established are that Alleghany has control of the New York Central and that the Central is itself a carrier with control of a large number of other carriers. The Commission was never asked to approve Alleghany's acquisition of control over this group of carriers and has carefully refrained from so doing.
This problem presents two separate questions: (1) does the acquisition of an already integrated system of separately existing carriers require Commission approval under subdivision 2 of section 5; and (2) if it does, may the Commission proceed to regulatory determinations, deferring meanwhile the question of whether it will authorize the continuation of this control, upon which its jurisdiction over Alleghany depends. The second question becomes more pointed where, as here, the assumption of regulatory responsibility by the Commission shields the person guilty of the unapproved acquisition from regulation by another agency.
With respect to the first question, until this case arose, it had been the consistent view of the Commission that its approval of such an acquisition of control and its finding of consistency with the public interest was required. Arkansas & L.M. Ry. Co. -- Control, 282 I.C.C. 254; Weinstein -- Control -- Capital Transit Co. and Montgomery, 56 M.C.C. 127; Seaboard Air Lines Ry. Co. -- Receivership, 261 I.C.C. 689. This view was well expressed by Division 4 in its opinion with respect to Alleghany's application for authority to merge one of the Central's subsidiaries, the Louisville & Jeffersonville Bridge and Railroad Company, 290 I.C.C. 725, 733-4.
The full Commission departed from this position and held to the contrary. 295 I.C.C. 11.
We reversed the Commission holding
and we in turn were reversed upon other grounds. The Supreme Court left the question open.
Without going into the question of whether our previous determination in this regard remains the law of the case we express afresh our conclusion that such approval is required. The statute unequivocally requires Commission approval for the acquisition of two or more carriers by any person. It reads:
'It shall be lawful, with the approval and authorization of the Commission * * * for a person which is not a carrier to acquire control of two or more carriers * * *'. § 5(2)(a).
Its language does not suggest any exceptions and certainly none on the basis of common control by someone else having been previously authorized. It seems to us that as long as the carriers remain unmerged and unconsolidated, the Commission has full power and the duty to decide whether control of them all or any of them by the proposed new person is in the public interest. This was the unchallenged prior consistent administrative interpretation by the Commission.
The full reasons for our holding were expressed in our earlier opinion at 134 F.Supp. 132, 142, and in Appendix II to our per curiam opinion at 138 F.Supp. 123, 137. We reaffirm them. We believe our view is strengthened by the emphasis in the Supreme Court's opinion upon the importance of keeping sight of the individual entities within the system. 353 U.S. at page 170, 77 S. Ct. at page 774.
If our conclusion in this regard is to stand, subdivision 4 of section 5 provides in emphatic terms that Alleghany's unauthorized seizure of control of the Central and its subsidiaries was unlawful and that its continued control of these carriers is unlawful as well.
Subdivision 7 of that section mandates action by the Commission to compel correction of violations of this particular subdivision, once the facts are known. It provides:
'The Commission is hereby authorized, upon complaint or upon its own initiative without complaint, but after notice and hearing, to investigate and determine whether any person is violating the provisions of paragraph (4). If the Commission finds aftre such investigation that such person is violating the provisions of such paragraph, it shall by order require such person to take such action as may be necessary, in the opinion of the Commission, to prevent continuance of such violation. The provisions of this paragraph shall be in addition to, and not in substitution for, any other enforcement provisions contained in this chapter; and with respect to any violation of paragraphs (2) to (12), inclusive, of this section, any penalty provision applying to such a violation by a common carrier subject to this chapter shall apply to such a violation by any other person.' (Emphasis added.)
Ordinarily, if the facts were less conclusive, the Commission would commence its own investigation which would proceed concurrently with the investigation concerning Alleghany's application. Here, however, there is no question of further investigation; the facts are undisputed; the Commission's findings are complete.
This point was inescapable because the Commission's power to pass upon the issuance of stock by Alleghany, which it exercised, depended upon the fact that Alleghany controlled the New York Central system. The question is simply one of law. The Commission, after reversing Division 4, proceeded to the merits of Alleghany's various applications, on the assumption that Alleghany's control of the carriers in question was lawful. This view was erroneous.
Under these circumstances, should authorization of the issue of stock be prmitted to stand? We do not see how the adequacy of the security of the new preferred could be calculated until this question is resolved or at least considered. Alleghany's investment in the Central system, as last shown in the record, was $ 14.7 million, over 1/4 of its total portfolio.
As long as Alleghany's control of Central is unapproved, it is subject to injunction, divestiture and other sanctions.
The effect of this cloud upon the value of the stock is a matter for expert consideration rather than our speculation. In the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary, as to which no findings were made,
authorization of continued control should logically be determined before the stockholders act upon the proffered exchange and before the stock becomes available for sale to the public, not afterwards. To say the least, it would be arbitrary to authorize the issue without even considering the effect of divestiture upon the value of this important asset as long as that action remains a possibility. Reconsideration by the Commission for that purpose is therefore necessary. The Commission's duty under section 20a is for the protection of investors as well as persons dependent upon transportation.
Neither do we see how an order for the private benefit of Alleghany may be said to be in compliance with the Act when Alleghany's status under the Act and sole basis for claiming to be entitled to this relief, or any relief under the Act, is that of a wrongdoer in unlawful control of a group of carriers. Here there is no finding of public advantage to be gained from granting Alleghany's application. Unlike the status order which made available to the Commission information for the protection of the public or even the merger of the Bridge Company which was expected to produce operating economies of ultimate value to the public, the present order is unaccompanied by any finding of fact which would suggest a rational basis for action in advance of an investigation into the legality of Alleghany's acquisition of control. Here an investment company has been barred from issuing the stock in question by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In violation of the Interstate Commerce Act it has obtained control of a group of carriers. Solely upon the basis of this violation it now claims the advantage of less rigidly restricted financing which the Investment Company Act intended only for a person who had previously satisfied the Interstate Commerce Commission that his control of a carrier would be consistent with the public interest. The Interstate Commerce Act was never intended as a source of relief for a person in illegal control of a carrier. Such a person might be subject to all the burdens and duties imposed by the Act upon a person in legal control, but relief or benefit for such a person may not be rationally authorized under the Act, except upon finding that the public interest required such authorization notwithstanding that person's violation of the Act. In the absence of any finding that immediate action is needed in the public interest, as distinguished from the private interest of Alleghany, the stock authorization should await an appropriate application for approval of its control.
Further, reconsideration by the Commission is required because, once the error of law is recognized, the Commission's action would be in arbitrary conflict with its own settled policy, to compel prompt application for approval of acquisition of control where required under the statute, a conflict with which the Commission was not faced so long as it believed approval of acquisition of an integrated system unnecessary. It has consistently denied relief sought by those in illegal control
and usually compelled divestiture
except where it has found continuation of the control clearly in the public interest and, in most cases, that the failure to request approval was in good faith due to an oversight.
Reopening of the Commission proceeding is necessary so that the Commission may give consideration to such findings here.
Finally, for even more fundamental reasons this order must be set aside. Although the Supreme Court has eliminated all doubt as to the Commission's jurisdiction -- its power to decide the question here presented -- it has not excused it from the need for making this decision, and making it in a logical sequence with respect to other regulatory decisions. The sequence of Commission determinations may not be in arbitrary and capricious disorder; it must have a rational basis just as each order must in itself have such a basis. The approval of acquisition and continued control is an obvious first question in any application by Alleghany because unless the Commission intends to approve this control, it would be regulating a company which should be properly under the control of another agency; it would be granting a wrongdoer sanctuary from the Investment Company Act; and it would be authorizing and ordering acts in aid of a known violation of the Interstate Commerce Act. The ultimate crucial result of such temporizing would be that by granting seemingly innocuous piecemeal applications, it would unobtrusively foreclose itself from any realistic determination of the fundamental question, because after the passage of time the disruption of the carriers in the system and of the public service, caused by divestiture, would be so great that it would necessarily be discarded as a practical alternative.
We have been confronted with the claim that our view is inevitably inconsistent with that of the Supreme Court because otherwise it would not have left undecided the question of whether Commission approval was required with respect to a system of carriers already under common control. We see no reason why the Supreme Court, once it had faced and decided the basis question of conflicting claims of two great administrative bodies, to jurisdiction, should be presumed to have followed to the bitter end every possible ramification of the claims of the private litigants. The holding of the Court did no more than establish the jurisdiction of the Commission and the validity of the status order.
The Court dealt with measures it believed necessary to protect the public from evasion of the Act by a possible wrongdoer. It did not suggest that the wrong be overlooked or that in the absence of any finding that the public interest compelled such action,
relief be granted for the benefit of the wrongdoer notwithstanding his wrong.
We have now recognized the Commission's jurisdiction. This unquestionably includes the power to authorize the issue of the preferred stock in question but we hold that although there might be circumstances when such action could reasonably be taken before approving the acquisition of control over the Central system, there were no findings of facts which justify such action in the present case.
Accordingly, judgment must be granted in favor of plaintiffs. A judgment will be entered setting aside the order of the Commission authorizing the issue of the preferred stock and enjoining acts of the defendants in furtherance thereof. Defendants may apply for a thirty day stay of enforcement to enable them to perfect an appeal to the Supreme Court. The preliminary injunction in its present form shall continue until further order of the Court.
Settle order on notice.