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U.S. Supreme Court

Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. v. Hall, 453 U.S. 571 (1981)

Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. v. Hall

No. 78-1789

Argued April 20, 1981

Decided July 2, 1981

453 U.S. 571


In 1952, respondent natural gas producers and petitioner entered into a contract under which respondents agreed to sell petitioner natural gas from a certain gas field in Louisiana. The contract contained a fixed price schedule and a "favored nations clause," which provided that, if petitioner purchased gas from the gas field from another party at a higher rate than it was paying respondents, then respondents would be entitled to a higher price for their sales to petitioner. In 1954, respondents filed the contract and their rates with the Federal Power Commission (now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and obtained from it a certificate authorizing the sale of gas at the specified contract rates. In 1961, petitioner purchased certain leases in the same gas field from the United States and began producing gas on its leasehold. In 1974, respondents filed an action in a Louisiana state court, contending that petitioner's lease payments to the United States had triggered the favored nations clause. Because petitioner had not increased its payments to respondents as required by that clause, respondents sought as damages an amount equal to the difference between the price they actually were paid in the intervening years and the price they would have been paid had that clause gone into effect. Although finding that the clause had been triggered, the trial court held that the "filed rate doctrine," which prohibits a federally regulated seller of natural gas from charging rates higher than those filed with the Commission pursuant to the Natural Gas Act, precluded an award of damages for the period prior to 1972 (the time during which respondents were subject to the Commission's jurisdiction). The intermediate appellate court affirmed, but the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that respondents were entitled to damages for the period between 1961 and 1972 notwithstanding the filed rate doctrine. The court reasoned that petitioner's failure to inform respondents of the lease payments to the United States had prevented respondents from filing rate increases with the Commission, and that, if they had done so, the increases would have been approved.

Held: The filed rate doctrine prohibits the award of damages for petitioner's breach during the period that respondents were subject to the Commission's jurisdiction. Pp. 453 U. S. 576-585. chanrobles.com-red

Page 453 U. S. 572

(a) The Natural Gas Act bars a regulated seller of natural gas from collecting a rate other than the one filed with the Commission, and prevents the Commission itself from imposing a rate increase for gas already sold. Here, the Louisiana Supreme Court's ruling amounts to nothing less than the award of a retroactive rate increase based on speculation about what the Commission might have done had it been faced with the facts of this case. This is precisely what the filed rate doctrine forbids. It would undermine the congressional scheme of uniform rate regulation to allow a state court to award as damages a rate never filed with the Commission, and thus never found to be reasonable within the meaning of the Act. Pp. 453 U. S. 576-579.

(b) Congress has granted exclusive authority over rate regulation to the Commission, and, in so doing, withheld the authority to grant retroactive rate increases or to permit collection of a rate other than the one on file. It would be inconsistent with this purpose to permit a state court to do through a breach of contract action what the Commission may not do. Under the filed rate doctrine, the Commission alone is empowered to approve the higher rate respondents might have filed with it, and until it has done so, no rate other than the one on file may be charged. The court below thus has usurped a function that Congress has assigned to a federal regulatory body. Cf. Chicago & North Western Transp. Co. v. Kalo Brick & Tile Co., 450 U. S. 311. This the Supremacy Clause will not permit. Pp. 453 U. S. 579-582.

(c) Under the filed rate doctrine, when there is a conflict between the filed rate and the contract rate, the filed rate prevails. P. 453 U. S. 582.

(d) Permitting the state court to award what amounts to a retroactive right to collect a rate in excess of the filed rate "only accentuates the danger of conflict," and no appeal to equitable principles can justify such usurpation of federal authority. Pp. 453 U. S. 583-584.

368 So.2d 984, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 453 U. S. 585. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 453 U. S. 586. STEWART, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. chanrobles.com-red

Page 453 U. S. 573


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