Reconstruction Finance Corporation v. Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company/Dissent Frankfurter

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

328 U.S. 495


No. 278 to 282.  Argued: and Submitted: March 5, 6, 1946. --- Decided: June 10, 1946. Dissenting Opinion: October 28, 1946.

The CHIEF JUSTICE announced that Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER has filed an opinion setting forth the detailed grounds for his dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court entered June 10, 1946, in these cases.

Railroad reorganizations are so enshrouded in the confusing intricacies of high finance that the true nature of decisive issues is too often lost to view. It may be useful to an appreciation of what appears to me to be the crux of the case to put a situation that is sufficiently analogous but much more familiar. In the early depression years the big life insurance companies foreclosed a large number of farms. The foreclosure process, we assume, involved the control of the farm and all its income by a judge. The hypothetical farm began to make a fair income, enough to pay the insurance company a considerable part, if not the whole, of the annual interest. But instead of paying the interest, the judge applied the money to rebuild the homestead, to add a new barn, to purchase an adjacent field, the most modern machinery and additional head of cattle. Thereby the farm became far more valuable than at any time since the insurance company placed the mortgage on it. Moreover, the judge retained as cash in the bank a portion of the income sufficient to pay off at least twenty percent of the mortgage. The farmer thinks he ought to be allowed to use the cash to reduce the mortgage, should be given credit for the income which the judge used to make the considerable improvements and which could have been used to reduce the mortgage. This would appear to be a natural attitude on the part of the farmer, and it would hardly seem that he was not reasonably justified to resist the claim of the insurance company to the farm, with all its improvements as well as the cash in bank.

This simple analogy may look almost trifling alongside the complicated details involved in a plan for the reorganization of a railroad system. But is it an oversimplification of the controlling issue, namely, was the Circuit Court of Appeals wrong in holding that the General Bondholders were 'reasonably justified' in rejecting the plan? Let the facts, clearly and fairly stated in the opinions below, speak for themselves. Judge Huxman thus summarizes the Court's conclusion that the General Bondholders had 'a real grievance':

'On November 1, 1935, the Debtor's total debts senior to the claim of the General Bondholders was slightly over $101,000,000. The General Bondholders' claims at that time were approximately $30,000,000, making the total of the two claims approximately $131,000,000. Any one of the ten plans of reorganization prior to the final one fixed the value of the property at more than enough to satisfy the claims of all bondholders in full, as of the date this proceeding was instituted. During the ten intervening years, the claim of the Senior Bondholders increased to more than $139,000,000, and that of the General Bondholders to more than $43,500,000, making a total of more than $182,000,000, required for the two classes of claims.

'During all of this period the Debtor enjoyed substantial income, amounting to approximately $50,000,000. Instead of using this income in payment of interest on the senior claims, it was used in making permanent and lasting improvements in the road. More than $43,000,000 was used in this way. None of these expenditures has resulted in a comparable increase or in any substantial increase in the final valuatin , over the valuation prior to the making of the improvements. But as a result of this operation, the position of the General Bondholders has deteriorated from a 100 per cent participation in the amount of their claims to a mere ten per cent. Nor does it change the picture to say that these improvements were necessary to the railroad system. The fact still remains that earnings in which all had a vital interest were used in building a new railroad in many respects, which will be handed over to the Senior Bondholders, and the General Bondholders will practically be eliminated as a result thereof.

'But this alone does not entitle the General Bondholders to a greater participation in the reorganized company. Neither does it condemn the plan of reorganization or the capital structure set up therein. The operation of a railroad involves the expenditure of large sums for operation. It involves the formulation of plans of operation and the exercise of judgment and discretion. If, in the exercise of this discretion, funds are unwisely spent, from the viewpoint of the interest of all creditors, they may feel aggrieved, but they have no legal cause of complaint.

'Neither was the Commission compelled to, nor would it be justified in adding the amount of these expenditures to the capitalized value if in the exercise of sound discretion it felt that the reasonable prospective earnings of the road, after the improvements did not justify it. However, in the face of all this, after satisfying in full the claims of the senior bondholders, the plan of reorganization should have made sure that all excess current assets, as well as all excess war profits yet to accrue, would go to the General Bondholders.

'The commission, as pointed out, adopted a conservative, sound estimate of the prospective earnings of the reorganized company. For this it is not to be criticized. An over-optimistic view would again surely lead the Debtor into the bankruptcy courts, with which it has had too much acquaintance already.7 We, however, feel that there is more than a speculative probability that these war industries which have been constructed along the system, as well as the improvements which have been made by the use of these net earnings, might produce greater net returns than anticipated in the plan. If such should be the case, they certainly belong to the General Bondholders and not to the Seniors, and the plan should bring this about. It could be done by issuing to the General Bondholders an additional amount of a subordinate stock which would receive returns only from excess dividends. This is a mere suggestion on our part, and in no wise binding on the Commission. Our duty is limited to pointing out defects in the plan. It is the responsibility of the Commission to correct them.

'Properties included in this railroad system have participated in the following reorganizations: The Denver & Rio Grande R. Co. was a successor in a reorganization proceeding in 1886; the Rio Grande & Western R. Co. was the successor in a reorganization proceeding in 1889; these two companies consolidated in 1908 under the name of the Denver & Rio Grande R. Co.; the present company was reorganized in 1920 and again in 1922 to 1924."

"The Junction Bonds

"We think that the complaint as to the manner in which the Junction Bonds were handled is well taken. The Rio Grande Junction Railroad is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Debtor. It had bonds outstanding in the hands of the public for the payment of which the Debtor was liable, totaling $2,758,333. This claim was senior to that of the General Bondholders. The plan set aside securities for the payment of this claim. In an order dated September 13, 1943, the District Court directed the trustee to pay this claim with some of the surplus cash on hand, and retained the securities which were to be used in the payment thereof in the treasury of the company. The court treated the transaction as a purchase of securities rather than a paye nt of a debt. This is a play upon words, and, in any event, is immaterial to the issue. The fact remains that the new capitalization provided securities for the payment of these bonds. The value behind these securities in no wise belonged to the Senior Bondholders, because they had been paid in full. When surplus cash was used to pay this claim, the value behind the securities set aside for that purpose remained undisturbed. Since the Senior Bondholders had been satisfied in full, this undistributed value in all equity and fairness belonged to the General Bondholders. Any plan which does not give it to them does not comply with the requirements of Section 77, sub. e, of the Act." 150 F.2d 28, 38, 39.

Inasmuch as the decision in this case seems to me to turn on an adequate appreciation of the facts, I deem it important to quote the analysis of the situation on the basis of which Judge Phillips reached his conclusion:

'On November 1, 1935, during the depths of the national depression, the debtor came into court for reorganization. At that time the debtor's senior debts ahead of the general mortgage bonds aggregated slightly over $101,000,000 and the claim of the general mortgage bondholders aggregated about $30,000,000. With an immediate reorganization, a capitalization of $132,000,000 would have been adequate to give the general mortgage bondholders new stock equal to 100 per cent of their claim. No capitalization or valuation ever proposed for the debtor, in any plan presented, has been that low. During the eight years' delay in reorganization (in nowise due to the general mortgage bondholders, but, at least in part, to controversies among the senior security holders) and up to January 1, 1943, the effective date of the plan, the claims of the senior security holders, due to the accrual and nonpayment of interest, increased about $38,000,000. The debtor's net income available for interest during the trusteeship to the end of 1944 amounted to $49,420,972. It exceeded by approximately $9,500,000 the interest charges which accrued on the claims of senior security holders to the end of that year. As of December 31, 1935, the debtor's current assets were $9,727,230 less than its current liabilities. As of December 31, 1944, the debtor's current assets exceeded its current liabilities by $12,125,863.50. Thus, it will be seen there has been a favorable change in the current situation of $21,853,093, and, moreover, since the plan was formulated, the Junction Bonds have been paid and equipment obligations have been reduced from $5,758,000, the amount provided for in the plan, to $4,540,000, a reduction in that requirement of $1,218,000.

'Approximately $43,000,000 of the income available, but not used, for the payment of interest has been expended in permanent improvements and betterments. While the investment value of the debtor's property thus was substantially increased, the Commission's valuation, based on estimated future earnings, was not increased proportionately. As a result, the claim of the senior security holders has increased and the participation of the general mortgage bondholders has been pressed downward until it is now fixed at 10 per cent of the new common stock. Many of the improvements and betterments referred to above have substantially increased the capacity of the railroad to handle increased traffic as it arises. Central train control installed in many segments, where the greatest density of traffic obtains, gives to those segments, in a large degree, the equivalent of a double-track railroad and increases the number of trains that can be operated over the road and the volume of traffic that can be handled by the road. Other of such improvements have contributed to efficiency and economy in operations. These improvements have enabled the debtor to handle the great increase in traffic resulting from the war effort and have placed the debtor in a position to more economically and efficiently handle a volume of traffic largely i excess of its prewar traffic, should future economic conditions produce such traffic. Under the plan approved and confirmed by the district court, 90 per cent of the common stock goes to the holders of the senior securities and 10 per cent to the general mortgage bondholders. As a result, should there be a substantial increase in the debtor's postwar traffic over its prewar traffic, 90 per cent of the increased earnings will inure to the benefit of the holders of the senior securities and only 10 percent of the general mortgage bondholders, whose claim was decreased 90 per cent by reason of the failure to discharge interest accruals with income available therefor and the diversion of such income to the cost of such permanent improvements. It seems to me, under all these circumstances, that, in addition to the other adjustments required to make the plan fair and equitable, the Commission should endeavor to modify the plan so as to give relief from the situation that lets the full impact of the improvement program fall upon the claim of the general mortgage bondholders and accords them no corresponding benefits.' 150 F.2d 28, 40, 41, 43.

From the confusing financial details one stark fact emerges. In 1939 the Commission found that the debtor would be able to earn enough in the future to provide an income on one-third of the General Mortgage bonds. 233 I.C.C. 515, 592. In the reorganization plan in 1943 the Commission concluded that the debtor would not earn enough to provide income on more than one-tenth of the General Mortgage claims. 254 I.C.C. 349, 359, 380. The capitalization proposed by the Commission in 1943 eliminated as valueless more of the total claim of the General Mortgage bonds and more of the face amount of these bonds than did the capitalization proposed by the Commission in 1939. Since 1939 the debtor achieved a position permitting it to make large debt reductions and to reduce considerably its interest charges. It accumulated a very large net income in excess of its interest service, it expended large sums to decrease operating costs and improve its business prospects, so that the future earning power of the railroad was greatly increased. In the face of all these factors the senior security holders were given not only securities for the full amount of their claim but also all cash accumulations available for the reduction of the road's indebtedness. Improvements in the financial and physical structure of the road patently calculated to increase the profits of the future owners of this road have been made the basis of substantially wiping out one class of the present owners. Inequitable consequences such as these led the Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude that the plan failed to satisfy the command of Congress that as a matter of judicial judgment a reorganization plan must be found 'fair and equitable.'

To defeat the plan it is not necessary, however, to find it intrinsically wanting in fairness and equity. Congress did not authorize the enforcement of a plan for reorganization once it is found, as a matter of judicial judgment, to be 'fair and equitable.' Congress wrote into law another and a vital condition to the validity of a railroad reorganization plan. A plan must also commend itself as 'fair and equitable' to the various classes of creditors. And if any class rejects it, the plan can prevail only if the District Court is warranted in finding that such rejection 'is not reasonably justified in the light of the respective rights and interests of those rejecting it and all the relevant facts.' 49 Stat. 911, 919, Aug. 27, 1935, 11 U.S.C. § 205(e), 11 U.S.C.A. § 205, sub. e.

Claimants who are thus entitled to vote on their interests as a class are surely not expected to vote as altruists any more than they are to be allowed to behave as unreasonable obstructionists. If that which Congress has written is not to be stricken out, we must recognize the referendum which Congress has lodged in each clas of creditors as a means of self-protection by each class of creditors and not as an occasion for empty dialectic. On a fair and practical construction of the power which Congress has seen fit to place in the hands of the various creditor classes, a class can be deemed not 'reasonably justified' in exercising the right which Congress gave them to vote their interests, only if a court can say that no intelligent class of creditors, regardful of their class interests, but not obviously hostile to the common interest with which their class interest is involved, could have objected to the plan. Any other construction reads 'reasonably justified' out of the statute. In effect that is what the district court has done. And this Court, with almost the candor of silence, appears to sanction such judicial deletion of what Congress has written. For it does not find that the General Bondholders were not reasonably justified from their intrinsic point of view to exercise their right to reject the plan. It does little more than assert this conclusion, apparently on the finding that the plan was in fact 'fair and equitable.' It imposes its judgment that the plan was 'fair and equitable' upon the General Bondholders and thus in effect deprives them of the very right which Congress gave them to be judges of their own interests so long as the court cannot say they were capricious or greedy in their judgment. This Court seems to be of the view that if in its judgment a plan is 'fair and equitable', it must appear equally fair and equitable to every class of creditors. Here three circuit judges found the plan not 'fair and equitable,' yet this Court holds that the General Bondholders were not 'reasonably justified' in not finding it 'fair and equitable.' This can only mean that the Court deems redundant, and therefore eliminates, the Congressional requirement that before a plan can be approved, it must commend itself to the judgment of a class of creditors exercising the kind of judgment that men are entitled to exercise in the pursuit of their legitimate self-interest, as well as commend itself to the judicial sense of fairness.

In assuming that if a plan seems fair and equitable to a court, rejection of it by any class must be unreasonable, the Court not only disregards the contrary assumption on the basis of which Congress legislated. Such an attitude is also oblivious of the practicalities of the situation. To assume that if a court finds a plan is 'fair and equitable' no class of creditors can be reasonably justified in rejecting it, is to assume that the ascertainment of fairness concerning so complicated a situation as a plan for a railroad's reorganization lies in the realm of even approximate certitude. Quite the opposite is true. A court in ascertaining whether a plan is fair and equitable is not engaged in ascertaining indisputable facts. It is forming a judgment, and largely a prophetic judgment, regarding a maze of factors, and as to each factor there is usually room for considerable difference of opinion. It is for this reason that Congress made it a condition for judicial approval of the plan that it appear fair and equitable in the voting system by the classes of creditors.

For an addition it was, made by Congress to the recommendation of the legislation by Commissioner Joseph B. Eastman. As Federal Coordinator, he proposed to Congress that a court be authorized to confirm the reorganization plan despite the failure to obtain a majority vote of one or more of the affected classes of creditors, provided that the district court was satisfied in two respects: (1) that the plan 'makes adequate provision for fair and equitable treatment for the interests or claims of those rejecting it'; and (2) that the judge was satisfied that the plan is 'fair and equitable' 'even if not so approved' by a class of creditors. See Coordinator's Annual Report for 1934, pp. 101-102, 237, 238.

But Congress deemed it in the public interest to give greater protection to h e various classes of creditors than the Coordinator suggested. In several respects Congress limited the power of courts to disregard a class vote against a plan beyond the safeguards proposed by the Coordinator. For present purposes it is decisive to note that Congress added to the protection formulated by the Coordinator by requiring that a judge, after finding that a plan is 'fair and equitable,' must also be satisfied and find that 'such rejection is not reasonably justified in the light of the respective rights and interests of those rejecting it and all the relevant facts.' I cannot escape the conclusion that to hold, in the circumstances of this case, that the General Bondholders were not reasonably justified in rejecting the plan is to decide that this requirement, purposefully written into the law by Congress as an addition to the requirement that the judge must find the plan to be 'fair and equitable', is but a meaningless repetition of that requirement.

The undesirability of further delay in taking this road out of the district court, where it has been for more than a decade, is bound to press upon any court. But it ought not lead to confirmation of a plan which fails to satisfy the explicit prerequisites for approval laid down by Congress, particularly so where the result is as drastic as the Circuit Court of Appeals and the expert Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce have made manifest. See S.Rep. 1170, 79th Cong.2d Sess. pp. 17, 18, 40, 42, 67, 68, 72, 73, 91-95, 105-109, 121-123.

Congress has not curtailed, nor shown any desire to restrict, the right of self-protection which it gave to railroad creditors by the Act of 1935 and to which the result of this case appears indifferent. On the contrary, Congress has since given decisive proof that it disapproved the construction which courts have heretofore given to § 77, resulting in undue harshness to junior interests and promoting concentration of railroad control. It has emphatically indicated that the rights of junior interests, reflecting public interests, should be more carefully safeguarded. Whether Congress has been wise or unwise in manifesting this view is not our business to decide. But it is the business of this Court to respect what I find to be a clear enunciation by Congress of the conditions which alone authorize courts to sanction a railroad reorganization.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).