Securities and Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corporation (318 U.S. 80)/Dissent Black

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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

318 U.S. 80

Securities and Exchange Commission  v.  Chenery Corporation

 Argued: Dec. 17, 18, 1942. --- Decided: Feb 1, 1943

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice REED and Mr. Justice MURPHY concur, dissenting.

For reasons set out in the Court's opinion and the dissenting opinion below, I agree that these respondents, officers and directors of the Corporations seeking reorganization, acted in a fiduciary capacity in formulating and managing plans they submitted to the Commission, and that, as fiduciaries, they should be held to a scrupulous observance of their trust. I further agree that Congress conferred on the Commission 'broad powers for the protection of the public', investors and consumers; and that the Commission, not the Court, was invested by Congress with authority to determine whether a proposed reorganization or merger would be 'fair and equitable', or whether it would be 'detrimental to the public interest or the interest of investors or consumers.'

The conclusions of the Court with which I disagree are those in which it holds that while the Securities and Exchange Commission has abundant power to meet the situation presented by the activities of these respondents, it has not done so. This conclusion is apparently based on the premise that the Commission has relied upon the common law rather than on 'new standards reflecting the experience gained by it in effectuating legislative policy', and that the common law does not support its conclusion; that the Commission could have promulgated 'a general rule of which its order here was a particular application', but instead made merely an ad hoc judgment; and that the Commission made no finding that these practices would prejudice anyone.

The Commission's actual finding was that 'The plan of reorganization herein considered, like the previous plans filed with us over the past several years, was formulated by the management of Federal, and discussions concerning the reorganization of this corporation have taken place between the management and the staff of the Commission over the past several years;' that C. T. Chenery purchased 8,618 shares of preferred stock during this period; that other officers and directors of the concerns involved acquired 3,789 shares during the same period; that for this stock these respondent fiduciaries paid $328,346.89 and then submitted their latest reorganization plan, under which this purchased stock would have a book value in the reorganization company of $1,162,431.90. In the light of these and other facts the Commission concluded that the new plan would be 'unfair, inequitable, and detrimental so long as the preferred stock purchased by the management at low prices is to be permitted to share on a parity with other preferred stock.' The Commission declined to give 'effectiveness' to the proposed plan and entered 'adverse findings' against it under §§ 7(d)(1) and 7(d)(2) of the controlling Act, resting its refusal to approve on this statement: 'We find that the provisions for participation by the preferred stock hold by the management result in the terms of issuance of the new securities being detrimental to the interests of investors and the plan being unfair and inequitable.'

The grounds upon which the Commission made its findings seem clear enough to me. Accepting as the Court does the fiduciary relationship of these respondents in managing the Commission proceedings, it follows that their peculiar information as to the stock values under their proposed plan afforded them opportunities for stock purchase profits which other stockholders did not have. While such fiduciaries, they bought preferred stock and then offered a reorganization plan which would give this stock a book value of four times the price they had paid for it. What the Commission has done is to say that no such reward shall be reaped by these fiduciaries. At the same time they are permitted to recover the full purchase price with interest. To permit their reorganization plan to put them in the same position as the old stockholders gives to these fiduciaries an unconscionable profit for trading with inside information.

I can see nothing improper in the Commission's findings and determinations. On the contrary, the rule they evolved appears to me to be a salutary one, adequately supported by cogent reasons and thoroughly consistent with the high standards of conduct which should be required of fiduciaries. That the Commission saw fit to draw support for its own administrative conclusion from decisions of courts should not detract from the validity of its findings. Entrusted as the Commission is with the responsibility of lifting the standard of transactions in the market place in order that the managers of financial ventures may not impose upon the general investing public, it seems wholly appropriate that the Commission should have recognized the influence of admonitory language like the following it approvingly quoted from Meinhard v. Salmon, 249 N.Y. 458, 164 N.E. 545, 546, 62 A.L.R. 1:

'A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior. As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate. * * * Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd.'

The decisions cited by the Commission seem to me to show the soundness of the conclusion it reached. As judges we are entitled to a sense of gratification that the common law has been able to make so substantial a contribution to the development of the administrative law of this field. See e.g. Pepper v. Litton, 308 U.S. 295, 60 S.Ct. 238, 84 L.Ed. 281; Michoud v. Girod, 4 How. 503, 11 L.Ed. 1076; Magruder v. Drury, 235 U.S. 106, 35 S.Ct. 77, 59 L.Ed. 151. Of course the Commission is not limited to common law principles in protecting investors and the public but even if it were so limited the Magruder case would in my opinion provide complete support for the position taken by the Commission: 'The intention is to provide against any possible selfish interest exercising an influence which can interfere with the faithful discharge of the duty which is owing in a fiduciary capacity. * * * It makes no difference that the estate was not a loser in the transaction, or that the commission was no more than the services were reasonably worth.' 235 U.S. at pages 119, 120, 35 S.Ct. at page 82, 59 L.Ed. 151. The distinction now seen by the Court between these cases and the instant problem comes to little more than that the fact situations are similar but not identical.

While I consider that the cases on which the Commission relied give full support to the conclusion it reached, I do not suppose, as the Court does, that the Commission's rule is not fully based on Commission experience. The Commission did not 'explicitly disavow' any reliance on what its members had learned in their years of experience, and of course they, as trade experts, made their findings that respondent's practice was 'detrimental to the interests of investors' in the light of their knowledge. That they did not unduly parade fact data across the pages of their reports is a commendable saving of effort since they meant merely to announce for their own jurisdiction an obvious rule of honest dealing closely related to common law standards. Of course, the Commission can now change the form of its decision to comply with the Court order. The Court can require the Commission to use more words; but it seems difficult to imagine how more words or different words could further illuminate its purpose or its determination. A judicial requirement of circumstantially detailed findings as the price of court approval can bog the administrative power in a quagmire of minutiae. Hypercritical exactions as to findings can provide a handy but an almost invisible glideway enabling courts to pass 'from the narrow confines of law into the more spacious domain of policy.' Phelps-Dodge Corporation v. Labor Board, supra, 313 U.S. at page 194, 61 S.Ct. at page 852, 85 L.Ed. 1271, 133 A.L.R. 1217. Here for instance, the Court apparently holds that the Commission has full power to do exactly what it did; but the Court sends the matter back to the Commission to revise the language of its opinion, in order, I suppose, that the Court may reappraise the reasons which moved the Commission to determine that the conduct of these fiduciaries was detrimental to the public and investors. The Act under which the Commission proceeded does not purport to vest us with authority to make such a reappraisal.

That the Commission has chosen to proceed case by case rather than by a general pronouncement does not appear to me to merit criticism. The intimation is that the Commission can act only through general formulae rigidly adhered to. In the first place, the rule of the single case is obviously a general advertisement to the trade, and in the second place the briefs before us indicate that this is but one of a number of cases in which the Commission is moving to an identical result on a broad front. But aside from these considerations the Act gives the Commission wide powers to evolve policy standards, and this may well be done case by case, as under the Federal Trade Commission Act. Federal Trade Commission v. R. F. Keppel & Bros., 291 U.S. 304, 310, 312, 54 S.Ct. 423, 425, 426, 78 L.Ed. 814.

The whole point of the Commission finding has been lost if it is criticized for a failure to show injury to particular shareholders. The Commission holding is that it should not 'undertake to decide case by case whether the management's trading has in fact operated to the detriment of the persons whom it represents,' because the 'tendency to evil' from this practice is so great that the Commission desires to attach to it a conclusive presumption of impropriety.

The rule the Commission adopted here is appropriate. Protection of investors from insiders was one of the chief reasons which led to adoption of the law which the Commission was selected to administer. [1] That purpose can be greatly retarded by overmeticulous exactions, exactions which require a detailed narration of underlying reasons which prompt the Commission to require high standards of honesty and fairness. I favor approving the rule they applied.


^1  'Among the most vicious practices unearthed at the hearings before the subcommittee was the flagrant betrayal of their fiduciary duties by directors and officers of corporations who used their positions of trust and the confidential information which came to them in such positions, to aid them in their market activities. Closely allied to this type of abuse was the unscrupulous employment of inside information by large stockholders who, while not directors and officers, exercised sufficient control over the destinies of their companies to enable them to acquire and profit by information not available to others.' Report of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency on Stock Exchange Practices, Report No. 1455, 73d Cong., 2d Sess.

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).