A federal Appeals Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against three Caterpillar dealers accused of conspiring to prevent online sales of Chinese construction equipment on IronPlanet.
The lawsuit was filed by International Construction Partners (ICP), a now-defunct distributor representing Chinese manufacturers, after its relationship with online equipment marketplace IronPlanet was terminated in 2014. ICP alleged Cat dealers Ring Power Corp., Ziegler Inc. and Thompson Tractor Co. conspired to pressure IronPlanet by threatening to boycott it if it did not cut ties with ICP.
ICP is also suing Caterpillar in a separate lawsuit in Delaware federal district court in a similar complaint. That case is scheduled for jury trial in April.
The 11th Circuit Appeals Court has ruled that ICP failed to provide sufficient evidence of a conspiracy by the dealers.
The Appeals Court concluded, “ICP has failed to carry its burden on summary judgment on its claims under the Sherman Act as well as its state-law claims for tortious interference with contract. ICP has not put forth sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to infer that Defendants acted in concert in conspiring to boycott IronPlanet if it did not terminate its relationship with ICP and therefore its claims must fail.”
The lawsuit stems from several mergers occurring in the equipment auction industry. ICP sold new equipment online and had struck a deal with IronPlanet to set up a dedicated online storefront on the auction website.
Meanwhile, IronPlanet was in merger negotiations with Cat Auction Services (CAS), which auctions used equipment. Two of the dealers had ownership interests in the two businesses. Ring Power was a minority shareholder of IronPlanet. Ziegler was a minority shareholder in CAS, and its CEO, Bill Hoeft, was a founding member and board chairman of CAS.
A month after the IronPlanet-ICP deal was announced, IronPlanet terminated the deal abruptly. The CAS-IronPlanet merger was approved, and it subsequently merged with Ritchie Bros. auction services.
IronPlanet said it terminated the ICP deal because it would require extensive technological resources, distracted from its top priority of the CAS merger and would not be as profitable as first thought, according to court records.
After an article about the IronPlanet-ICP relationship appeared in Equipment World, Ziegler CEO Hoeft emailed IronPlanet CEO Greg Owens in 2014:
“We and Caterpillar, noted the recent article in Equipment World, which highlighted Iron Planet’s new relationship with [ICP]. We would like to better understand that relationship, as we are concerned that Caterpillar and the CAT dealers would have significant concerns about any arrangement where Iron Planet is providing auction services for new equipment for a Caterpillar competitor.”
After its IronPlanet relationship was terminated, ICP sued Caterpillar, CAS, Komatsu and others in 2015 in federal district court in Delaware alleging that they illegally conspired to pressure and boycott IronPlanet if it allowed the ICP relationship to continue. That pressure violated antitrust and other federal laws, ICP said.
ICP later added the three dealers to the suit. That case was then shifted from Delaware federal district court to Northern Florida.
All of the defendants in the cases denied ICPs claims. They said their conduct was lawful and justified and did not prevent competition.
The Florida court sided with the dealers, saying “no reasonable jury could find that Defendants individually threatened to boycott IronPlanet if it did not terminate its relationship with [ICP]. Accordingly, there is no parallel conduct from which the jury could possibly infer the existence of a conspiracy.”
It added that even if the dealers individually had threatened to boycott IronPlanet, they would be justified out of concern for their own business interests.
The court then granted the dealers’ motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case. ICP appealed that dismissal to the 11th Circuit Appeals Court.
The Appeals Court ruled in October 2023 to uphold the district court’s dismissal.
Caterpillar Case Continues
The ICP lawsuit against Caterpillar in Delaware district court continues.
In September 2022, the judge denied Caterpillar’s motion for dismissal and granted ICP’s request for a jury trial. He dismissed Komatsu from the suit.
In November 2023, Caterpillar’s lawyer filed a letter alerting the judge to the Appeals Court’s decision in the dealers’ case and has again asked for dismissal. ICP argues that the dealer case does not preclude a decision against Caterpillar and is seeking oral arguments on the motion.
A jury trial is scheduled for April 5, 2024, according to court records