North Carolina Business Litigation Report

Business Court Gives Broad Interpretation To Its Mandatory Jurisdiction Over Antitrust Cases

The Business Court has mandatory jurisdiction under N.C. Gen. Stat. §7A-45.4 over claims involving "antitrust law, except claims based solely on unfair competition under N.C. Gen. Stat. §75-1.1.

The Court gave a broad reading to its grant of its antitrust jurisdiction in an Order today in Sonic Automotive, Inc. v. Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, in which it denied an objection to a Notice of Designation of the case as a mandatory complex business case. 

Sonic, which already owned nine Mercedes dealerships, sued Mercedes-Benz for refusing to approve its purchase of another dealership in Charlotte.  According to the Complaint, Mercedes-Benz withheld its approval because of Sonic's alleged failure to comply with the terms of a letter agreement executed when Sonic had acquired other Mercedes dealerships. 

The case was designated to the Business Court by Mercedes-Benz as being within the Court's mandatory jurisdiction over antitrust cases and the law governing corporations.  Sonic filed a Motion to Remand objecting to the designation.

There's no claim in Sonic's Complaint denominated as an antitrust claim, and the word antitrust isn't even in the Complaint. 

Mercedes-Benz argued in its Opposition to the Motion to Remand that Sonic's claim was based on a "contract in restraint of trade," which implicated "antitrust and unfair competition issues squarely within the Business Court's jurisdiction."  The car manufacturer was helped in its arguments by public statements made by Sonic's President that Sonic was being "extorted" by Mercedes-Benz and that Mercedes-Benz had "tied" the sale of the Charlotte dealership to Sonic's compliance with the letter agreement.

Judge Tennille found that the Court's antitrust jurisdiction was implicated, and also held that its mandatory jurisdiction was appropriate for other reasons presented by Mercedes-Benz in its Opposition:

Plaintiff has asked the Court to remand this action because the case “does not involve any . . . issue” regarding antitrust law or the law governing corporations. (Pl. Br. Supp. Opp’n 1.) The Court disagrees. First, this case potentially involves violations of antitrust law. Section 75-1.1 of the North Carolina General Statutes does not cover simple breach of contract. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1 (2007). Thus, the unfair trade practices claim may involve antitrust issues. Second, this case may involve issues with broad ramifications for automobile dealers and manufacture[r]s. Third, this case may also involve the interplay between courts and administrative agencies. These parties and agencies will benefit from a single judge hearing this case. Fourth, this case involves the sale of a business or business assets. Fifth, the case is likely to be motion intensive.

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Mack Sperling
Brooks Pierce, LLP
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