The New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers is suing Ford Motor Co. and its Lincoln luxury brand over what it says are unfair discounts for certain retailers who comply with a commitment program requiring standalone showrooms.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in New Jersey State Superior Court, alleges that the program -- which Lincoln reworked last year in an attempt to appease unhappy dealers -- would create an illegal two-tier pricing system. Dealers who uncouple their Ford stores and build standalone Lincoln showrooms are eligible for up to 5.75 percent in potential discounts per vehicle, the suit says, while those who do not participate would not receive the financial reward.
"Two-tier pricing programs, like the one being pushed on Lincoln dealers at this time, tear at the very fabric of the franchise system," Jim Appleton, president of the dealer group, said in a statement.
"The New Jersey Legislature, in 2011, outlawed such programs, because lawmakers found them to be a destabilizing force in the marketplace, with the potential to force local business owners to make investments that don't offer a realistic return on investment or driving them out of business, thereby reducing competition and limiting consumer access to service."
The lawsuit was filed a day before a Feb. 1 deadline Lincoln had set for dealers to enroll in the program, requiring a $20,000 deposit that would be reimbursed once the project was certified. They would have until July 2022 to build the stores.
The lawsuit, Appleton said, does not seek any damages.
"We're just looking for the court to issue a definitive ruling that the plain language of the New Jersey statute means something and that automakers must abide by the law," he said. "NJCAR filed the lawsuit asserting Lincoln dealer rights, but a favorable ruling in this case would help dealers in other line-makes protect themselves against unreasonable and unfair two-tier pricing programs that have become commonplace among just about all automakers."
Before filing the lawsuit, New Jersey's dealer association sent a letter to Lincoln outlining the state law violations, Appleton previously told Automotive News. That is similar to actions taken by other state dealer groups.
A Lincoln spokeswoman late Friday issued a statement defending the commitment program, noting the company had not yet received the lawsuit and could not comment directly about the case.
"Over the past year, Lincoln has made great progress, and our dealer partners have played a key role in building this momentum," the statement said. "Last year, we reinstated the Lincoln Commitment Program after listening to our dealers and making modifications to the program. As we continue to grow the brand, we remain committed to creating brand-exclusive facilities that will deliver a distinctive luxury experience for Lincoln clients."