Virginia Coal Company v. Central Railroad Banking Company of Georgia/Opinion of the Court
United States Supreme Court
VIRGINIA COAL COMPANY v. CENTRAL RAILROAD BANKING COMPANY OF GEORGIA
In each of the intervening petitions a liability of the Central Company was asserted to arise from the fact that the coal was sold to and purchased by the Danville Company for use in operating the lines of railway of the Central Company, and in the lower courts, as in this court, it was contended that under the prayer for general relief the petitioners were entitled to have their demands allowed as a preferential claim against any surplus income which might arise from the operation of the Central road under the receiver, after payment of the ordinary expenses of operation, or out of the corpus of the estate, or the proceeds of sale thereof, in the event that the income had been diverted by the receivers in expenditures for betterments.
Had the Central Company, through its own officers, operated its line of railway during the period when the coal in question was furnished, it cannot be doubted, in the light of the decision in Burnham v. Bowen, 111 U.S. 776, 4 Sup. Ct. 675, that, in the event that the company failed to make payment for such coal while a going concern, the indebtedness created, upon the appointment of a receiver, might have been properly allowed as a charge upon the surplus income arising during the receivership. In the case referred to, an Iowa state court, in the early part of 1875, and subsequently, by removal, a circuit court of the United States sitting in equity, took possession of, and operated through a receiver, a line of railway owned by the Chicago, Dubuque & Minnesota Railroad Company. When the receiver took control the company was indebted to the Northern Illinois Coal & Iron Company for coal furnished 'during 1874,' and used in running locomotives. During the receivership, there was paid from the earnings which came into the hands of the receiver the amount of a judgment indebtedness for lands purchased by the company for its depot and offices, and also several judgments rendered against the company for its right of way. The sum of these payments by the receiver exceeded the amount of the indebtedness owing for the coal furnished as above stated. In October, 1876, a decree of strict foreclosure was entered, in which, however, a reservation was made, for future decision, of all matters in controversy between the plaintiffs, and all and any of the defendants and interveners and claimants. Among the persons who had intervened in the foreclosure proceedings was one Bowen, who had acquired acceptances which had been given to the coal company for the indebtedness referred to. He petitioned for a judgment against the railroad company for the amount of such indebtedness, 'and that such judgment be declared a lien on the property and road of said company in the hands of said trustees and their grantees.' A decree was entered on October 30, 1880, finding due to Bowen on his claim a specified sum, and declaring that the mortgaged property in the hands of the trustees under the decree of foreclosure was equitably bound for the payment thereof, 'said property having passed to said trustees subject to the rights and equities of said Bowen, intervener, and said trustees, and all parties holding under them, taking said property subject to such rights and equities on the part of said Bowen, intervener.' Provision was then made for a sale of the property if the claim was not paid. An appeal having been taken by the trustees, this court held that at the time of the appointment of the receiver the indebtedness in question was one of the current debts for operating expenses made in the ordinary course of a continuing business, to be paid out of current earnings. In the course of the opinion, speaking through Mr. Chief Justice Waite, the court reiterated the doctrine enunciated in Fosdick v. Schall, 99 U.S. 252, where it was declared that: 'The income [of a railroad company] out of which the mortgagee is to be paid is the net income obtained by deducting from the gross earnings what is required for necessary operating and managing expenses, proper equipment, and useful improvements. Every railroad mortgagee, in accepting his security, impliedly agrees that the current debts made in the ordinary course of business shall be paid from the current receipts before he has any claim on the income.'
And it was further said (111 U.S. 781, 782, 4 Sup. Ct. 678):
'So far as anything appears on the record, the failure of the company to pay the debt to Bowen was due alone to the fact that the expenses of running the road and preserving the security of the bondholders were greater than the receipts from the business. Under these circumstances, we think the debt was a charge in equity on the continuing income, as well on that which came into the hands of the court after the receiver was appointed as that before. When, therefore, the court took the earnings of the receivership, and applied them to the payment of the fixed charges on the railroad structures, thus increasing the security of the bondholders at the expense of the labor and supply creditors, there was such a diversion of what is denominated in Fosdick v. Schall, the 'current debt fund,' as to make it proper to require the mortgagees to pay it back. So far as current expense creditors are concerned, the court should use the income of the receivership in the way the company would have been bound in equity and good conscience to use it if no change in the possession had been made. This rule is in strict accordance with the decision in Fosdick v. Schall, which we see no reason to modify in any particular.'
It was thus settled that, where coal is purchased by a railroad company for use in operating lines of railway owned and controlled by it, in order that they may be continued as a going concern, and where it was the expectation of the parties that the coal was to be paid for out of current earnings, the indebtedness, as between the party furnishing the materials and supplies and the holders of bonds secured by a mortgage upon the property, is a charge in equity on the continuing income, as well that which may come into the hands of a court after a receiver has been appointed as that before. It is immaterial, in such case, in determining the right to be compensated out of the surplus earnings of the receivership, whether or not during the operation of the railroad by the company there had been a diversion of income for the benefit of the mortgage bondholders, either in payment of interest on mortgage bonds or expenditures for permanent improvements upon the property. Nor is the equity of a current supply claimant in subsequent income arising from the operation of a railroad under the direction of the court affected by the fact that while the company is operating its road its income is misappropriated and diverted to purposes which do not inure to the benefit of the mortgage bondholders, and are foreign to the beneficial maintenance, preservation, and improvement of the property. This principle finds support in Miltenberger v. Railroad Co., 106 U.S. 286, 311, 312, 1 Sup. Ct. 140, the decision in which case was approvingly referred to in Union Trust Co. v. Illinois M. Ry. Co., 117 U.S. 434, 6 Sup. Ct. 809, and in the recent case of Thomas v. Car Co., 149 U.S. 95, 110, 13 Sup. Ct. 824. In the Trust Co. Case, the court said (117 U.S. 456, 6 Sup. Ct. 821):
'The principle laid down in Wallace v. Loomis, 97 U.S. 146, was applied in Miltenbeg er v. Railway Co., 106 U.S. 286, 311, 312, 1 Sup. Ct. 140. In that case a bill was filed by a second mortgagee against the mortgagor and a first mortgagee and judgment creditors of the mortgagor to foreclose a mortgage on a railroad. On the day the bill was filed, and without notice to the first mortgagee, a receiver was appointed, and power given him to operate and manage the road, 'receive its revenues, pay its operating expenses, make repairs, and manage its entire business, and to pay the arrears due for operating expenses for a period in the past not exceeding ninety days, and to pay into the court all revenue over operating expenses.' After that, and without notice to the first mortgagee, who had not appeared, though notified of the order appointing the receiver, and of the pendency of the suit, the court authorized the receiver to purchase engines and cars, and to adjust liens on cars, owned by the mortgagor, and to pay indebtedness, not exceeding $10,000, to other connecting lines of road, in settlement of ticket and freight accounts and balances, and for materials and repairs, which had accrued in part more than ninety days before the order appointing the receiver was made, and to construct five miles of new road and a bridge. The petition for the order stated the necessity for the rolling stock and for the adjustment of the liens; that the payment of the connecting lines was indispensable to the business of the road, and it would suffer great detriment unless that was provided for; and that the new road and the bridge would come under the mortgages, and their construction would be to the advantage of the bondholders. After the first mortgagee had appeared and answered, an order was made, but not on prior notice to it, authorizing the receiver to issue certificates to pay for rolling stock he had bought under orders of the court, and to pay debts incurred for building the five miles of road and the bridge, under those orders, and to pay debts incurred for taxes, and rights of way, and back pay, and supplies in operating the road; the certificates to be payable out of income, and, if not so paid, to be provided for by the court in its final order. Claims thus arising were afterwards allowed to be paid out of the proceeds of sale before the mortgage bonds. This court upheld such priority as to the debts for the purchase of rolling stock, and for the adjustment of liens, and for the construction of the five miles of road and the bridge, and for the amount due connecting lines, some of which were incurred more than ninety days before the receiver was appointed. On the latter branch of the subjuct it said: 'It cannot be affirmed that no items which accrued before the appointment of a receiver can be allowed in any case. Many circumstances may exist which may make it necessary and indispensable to the business of the road and the preservation of the property for the receiver to pay pre-existing debts of certain classes out of the earnings of the receivership, or even the corpus of the property, under the order of the court, with a priority of lien. Yet the discretion to do so should be exercised with very great care. The payment of such debts stands, prima facie, on a different basis from the payment of claims srising under the receivership, while it may be brought within the principle of the latter by special circumstances. It is easy to see that the payment of unpaid debts for operating expenses, accrued within ninety days, due by a railroad company suddenly deprived of the control of its property, due to operatives in its employ, whose cessation from work simultaneously is to be deprecated, in the interests both of the property and of the public, and the payment of limited amounts due to other and connecting lines of road for materials and repairs, and for unpaid ticket and freight balances, the outcome of indispensable business relations, where a stoppage of the continuance of such business relations would be a probable result in case of nonpy ment, the general consequence involving largely, also, the interests and accommodations of travel and traffic, may well place such payments in the category of payments to preserve the mortgaged property in a large sense by maintaining the good will and integrity of the enterprise, and entitle them to be made a first lien. This view of the public interest in such a highway for public use as a railroad is, as bearing on the maintenance and use of its franchises and property in the hands of a receiver, with a view to public convenience, was the subject of approval by this court, speaking by Mr. Justice Woods, in Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126."
Is there any good reason why the equitable doctrine applied in the cases to which we have referred should not be applied under a state of facts such as shown at bar, where the immediate management of a road was confided by its owners, without protest or inerference by the bondholders, to third parties? It would seem not. The dominant feature of the doctrine, as applied in Burnham v. Bowen, is that, where expenditures have been made which were essentially necessary to enable the road to be operated as a continuing business, and it was the expectation of the creditors that the indebtedness created would be paid out of the current earnings of the company, a superior equity arises in favor of the material man as against the mortgage bonds in the income arising both before and after the appointment of a receiver from the operation of the property.
The equity thus held to arise when a purchase of necessary current supplies is made by the owning company, is not in any wise influenced by the fact that the company itself is the purchaser of the supplies, but is solely dependent upon the fact that the supplies are sold and purchased for use, and that they are used in the operation of the road; that they are essential for such operation; and that the sale was not made simply upon personal credit, but upon the tacit or express understanding that the current earnings would be appropriated for the payment of the debt. Clearly, if the owning company had entered into an agreement with some individual to commit to his uncontrolled management as their agent the operation of the company's lines, the bondholders could not be heard to say that thereby no equities could arise in favor of labor or supply claimants in the income of the property preserved or kept in operation by their efforts. This would be the category in which the Danville Company would stand if the lease of the Central lines was not valid. On the other hand, if the lease was lawful, upon the insolvency for any cause of the Danville Company while the lease continued in force, its relation towards its leased line in the adjustment and settlement as against the leased road of equities arising between those who had furnished supplies to the road and the bondholders would be precisely that of an owner of the leased lines; and, if such possession is terminated by the court through the agency of a receiver, equities in the income of the property continue to survive.
Upon the evidence contained in the record, we hold that the contract upon which both interveners relied-the deliveries of coal furnished by the Sloss Company being under the contract which had been made with the Virginia Company-was made with the Danville Company, but we conclude from the terms of the contract that the intention of the parties was that the coal was to be used in the operation of the lines of the Central Company, and that the mining companies did not rely simply upon the responsibility of the Danville Company, but, on the contrary, that the coal companies looked to the earnings of the Central system as the source from which the funds to pay for the coal to be furnished were to be derived.
While it was established that during the time the Danville Company was in control of the Central property a semiannual installment of interest-which exceeded the amount of the claims of the interveners-was paid to the hod ers of bonds of the Central Company, we cannot say that there was a diversion of income from the Central lines for such purpose. At the best it could only be conjectured that such payment was probably made from that income. Whether, however, there was a diversion of income before the receivership, inuring to the benefit of the bondholders, the equity in favor of the coal company for payment out of subsequent income, as we have seen, survived, and attached to the property when it was taken possession of by the receiver; and if a surplus of income was created by the operations of the road under the receiver, sufficient to satisfy the claims of the interveners, the right to demand that the surplus income be applied in satisfaction of the claims in question was undoubted. From the evidence we find that there was such surplus. It was stipulated in the record as a fact 'that since the receivership the receivers of the Central Railroad & Banking Company of Georgia have expended for betterments on its railroad lines, from the income of the roads during the receivership, a sum much larger than the entire claim of the interveners.' Keeping in mind the manifest purpose of this stipulation, which undoubtedly was to present the question of the right of the claimants to resort to the corpus of the estate for payment of their claims, we must give the term 'betterments' a broad, and not a restricted, meaning. So construed, it must be held to have referred to expenditures for the improvement of the property as distinguished from mere payments for operating expenses and ordinary repairs, which are usual and legitimate terms of outlay from current receipts. This is the sense in which the term was understood by this court in Union Trust Co. v. Illinois M. Ry. Co., 117 U.S. 434, 6 Sup. Ct. 809, where the validity of receivers' certificates was upheld which had been paid out of the proceeds of the sale of corpus of the property, because issued to replace earnings diverted from paying operating expenses and ordinary repairs to payment of betterments. 117 U.S. 462, 6 Sup. Ct. 809.
The circumstance that it is uncertain from the terms of the stipulation whether the expenditures for betterments were made by the receivers under the stockholders' bill, or under the bill filed by the Central Company, or under the trustee's bill for foreclosure, is immaterial. Even though the mortgages securing the bonds provided for the sequestration by foreclosure of the income of the road for the benefit of the bondholders, for reasons already stated, that income, until strict foreclosure or a sale of the road, was charged with the prior equity of unpaid supply claimants such as those now before the court.
In concluding that the claims of the interveners were entitled to priority out of the surplus earnings which arose during the control of the road by the court, we must not be understood as in any wise detracting from the force of the intimations contained in the recent utterances of this court in Kneeland v. Trust Co., 136 U.S. 89, 10 Sup. Ct. 950, and Thomas v. Car Co., 149 U.S. 95, 13 Sup. Ct. 824, cases as to the necessity of a court of equity confining itself within very restricted limits in the application of the doctrine that in certain cases a court having a road or fund under its control may be justified in awarding priority over the claims of mortgage bondholders to unsecured claims originating prior to a receivership. In the Kneeland Case, however, the claim refused priority was based upon an alleged instrument of lease, and was for four months' rental of cars operated on a line of railroad by a receiver appointed at the suit of a judgment creditor, such receiver being succeeded in office by a receiver appointed in the foreclosure proceedings instituted by the trustees of the mortgage bondholders. It was held that the alleged contracts of lease were, in substance and effect, 'antecedent contracts of sale'; that in those contracts ample provision had been made by the vendorf or his security by stipulations authorizing a retaking of the property upon failure to make payment promptly of the installments of purchase money as they became due, and that the claim against the fund was in reality for a portion of the purchase price of the cars. Under these circumstances the debt was held not to be embraced 'in the few specified and limited cases' in which this court 'has declared that unsecured claims were entitled to priority over mortgage debts,' and particular attention was called, among other things, to the fact that the receivership at the suit of the judgment creditor was not for the benefit of the mortgage bondholders, so that it could not be asserted that the expenditures of such receivership were payable, in any event, out of the income or corpus of the property; and the fact was also noticed that from the time of the purchase of the rolling stock in question in the suit to the time of the final disposition of the mortgage foreclosure the receipts did not equal the operating expenses, and there had been no diversion of the current earnings, either to the payment of interest or the permanent improvement of the property. In the Thomas Case, claims for rental of cars, which rental had accrued prior to the receivership, were denied priority over the mortgage bonds; but the facts in that case were such as to justify the conclusion that the car company contracted 'upon the responsibility of the railroad company, and not in reliance upon the interposition of a court of equity.' In neither the Kneeland nor the Thomas Case was there any intention to question the prior decisions of the court, which allowed priority to claims based upon the furnishing of essential and necessary current supplies, not sold upon mere personal credit, against the surplus income arising during the operation of the road under the direction of a court of dquity.
In view of the conclusion which we have reached, none of the other matters urged in argument need be noticed. The decree of the circuit court of appeals being in consonance with the views we have expressed, the decree of that court is affirmed.
Mr. Justice PECKHAM and Mr. Justice McKENNA, not having heard the argument, take no part in this decision.