The United States District Court for the District of Maryland has allowed a complaint alleging Sherman Act violations by a lender in purported conspiracy with its internal title company and competitor title company to proceed. In Wilson v. Eagle National Bank, the Court held that allegations of horizontal price-fixing in title and settlement services, if proven true, constitute per se violations of the Sherman Act.
Plaintiffs alleged that Eagle National Bank, together with a parent company and wholly-owned subsidiary, operated Eagle Nationwide Title Agency, an “internal title company,” which joined in a price-fixing scheme with third-party All Star Title, Inc. for title and insurance services. Each of the Eagle Bank defendants moved to dismiss the Sherman Act claims asserting that per se violations of the Sherman Act require horizontal price-fixing but that the defendants were not competitors of All Star and were not at the same level of the market structure. Defendants alleged that any restraint on trade would have been due to vertical price-fixing as the parties were at different levels of the market and that vertical price-fixing was not a per se violation of the Sherman Act.
The Court first noted that All Star Title and Eagle Bank’s internal title company were direct competitors for title and settlement services giving rise to potential claims of horizontal price-fixing as to Eagle Nationwide Title Agency. The remaining Eagle defendants were not direct competitors of All Star. Nevertheless, the Court noted that the remaining defendants were alleged to have participated in the horizontal price-fixing conspiracy and could be liable for Sherman Act violations notwithstanding that they were not direct competitors of All Star. The Court concluded that the action could proceed as to all Eagle Bank defendants, as all were alleged to have participated in the scheme to fix prices with All Star.
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