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Belleville Toyota, Inc. v. Toyota Motor Sales

March 15, 2002

BELLEVILLE TOYOTA, INC., APPELLEE,
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, U.S.A., INC., ET AL., APPELLANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald.

UNPUBLISHED

Plaintiff, Belleville Toyota, Inc., sued defendants, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., and Toyota Motor Distributors, Inc. Defendants are, respectively, the authorized importer and the wholesale distributor of new Toyota vehicles in the United States. Plaintiff claimed that defendants breached certain dealership agreements by allocating to plaintiff less than the full number of Toyota vehicles to which plaintiff was entitled. Plaintiff also claimed that defendants' conduct violated the Motor Vehicle Franchise Act (Act) (815 ILCS 710/1 et seq. (West 2000)). Following a jury trial, the circuit court of St. Clair County entered a multi-million dollar judgment against defendants. On appeal, the appellate court rejected defendants' numerous claims of error and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. 316 Ill. App. 3d 227. We granted defendants' petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the appellate court and remand this matter to the circuit court for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

In 1973, Bill Newbold acquired an ownership interest in a Toyota dealership in Belleville, Illinois, and took over the dealership's day-to-day operations. The dealership, doing business under the name Bill Newbold Toyota, was one of approximately 100 Toyota dealerships in the five-state Chicago region. Bill Newbold, along with his son, Kent, operated the dealership under a series of dealer agreements with defendants. The earliest of the dealer agreements at issue in this litigation was executed in June 1980, and provided for a six-year term. Under the 1980 agreement, plaintiff was required to submit orders for Toyota products on forms supplied by defendants. In the event of a shortage of Toyota products, the "unit allocation" provision of the contract required that vehicles be allocated to plaintiff "principally on the basis of sales performance during the most recent representative period of adequate supply."

In 1986, upon expiration of the1980 agreement, the parties entered into a new dealer agreement with a one-year term. In 1987, the parties entered into another one-year agreement, and in 1988, entered into a six-year agreement. Under the 1986, 1987 and 1988 agreements, defendants were to use their "best efforts" to provide Toyota products to plaintiff, subject to available supply. In the event of a shortage, defendants were required to allocate Toyota products among its dealers in a "fair and equitable manner."

In June 1989, defendants notified plaintiff of their intent to open a new Toyota dealership in Collinsville, Illinois. In response, on August 8, 1989, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendants under the Act, seeking to enjoin them from establishing a Collinsville dealership. Plaintiff twice amended its complaint to include claims for breach of contract and additional violations of the Act. Plaintiff alleged that defendants failed to allocate Toyota vehicles in the quantities contractually required and that defendants fraudulently concealed their conduct. According to plaintiff, defendants' breach was not discovered until the fall of 1990. Plaintiff further alleged that, in violation of the Act, defendants' allocation of vehicles was arbitrary, capricious, in bad faith, and unconscionable; defendants concealed their arbitrary and capricious allocation system; and defendants' conduct was willful and wanton. The trial court dismissed with prejudice plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief and denied defendants' motions challenging, inter alia, the timeliness of plaintiff's claims. In 1997, following several years of discovery, the parties proceeded to trial.

At trial, plaintiff maintained that, as the result of certain import restrictions under a voluntary restraint agreement (VRA) between the United States and Japan, there was a shortage of Toyota vehicles during the 1980s. Plaintiff contended that, due to this shortage, defendants were obligated, under the "unit allocation provision" contained in the 1980 dealer agreement, to allocate Toyota vehicles to the dealers based on "sales performance during the most recent representative period of adequate supply." According to plaintiff, defendants failed to do so. In the alternative, plaintiff maintained that, even absent a shortage of Toyota vehicles, the allocation system defendants used, which they described to plaintiff as a "turn and earn" system, did not comply with the 1980 agreement requiring an order system. Plaintiff further maintained that defendants' so-called "turn and earn" system, which purportedly allocated cars based on how quickly a dealer moved its inventory, did not function in this way. Rather, the vehicle allocation system was arbitrary and subject to manipulation, and was used in a discriminatory way, all in violation of the Act, as well as the four dealer agreements at issue in the litigation. Plaintiff's damage expert estimated that, during the 1980s, plaintiff was shorted thousands of vehicles by defendants, resulting in lost profits of $5 million to $11 million.

Defendants maintained at trial that there was no shortage of Toyota vehicles, and that its allocation system, which defendants referred to as a "balanced day supply" system, was clear and fair. Under a "balanced day supply"system, allocations are made based on a dealer's past sales performance, rate of sales, and remaining inventory. Each dealer is allocated a "days supply" of vehicles, i.e., that number of vehicles needed so that all dealers, theoretically, exhaust their inventory on the same day. Defendants also maintained that, unlike the domestic automobile manufacturers, they never used a custom order system. Defendants also asserted that plaintiff, by its conduct, waived any claims against defendants; plaintiff's claims were barred by its own breach of the dealer agreements; and pursuant to the parties' course of performance, defendants' conduct did not constitute a breach of the dealer agreements.

After a two-week trial, which included testimony from 30 witnesses, the jury entered a verdict in favor of plaintiff, awarding damages of $2.5 million on plaintiff's breach of contract count, and $2.25 million on plaintiff's count under the Act. The trial court denied defendants' post-trial motion. Based on the jury's special finding that defendants' conduct was willful or wanton, the trial court granted plaintiff's motion for treble damages under the Act and entered judgment on that count in the amount of $6.75 million. See 815 ILCS 710/13 (West 2000) ("Where the misconduct is willful or wanton, the court may award treble damages"). The trial court also ruled that "judgment on Count I [breach of contract] shall be deemed satisfied upon payment of an amount on Count II [violation of the Act] which is equivalent to the judgment on Count I plus interest." Finally, the trial court reserved ruling on plaintiff's motion for attorney fees and costs under the Act (see 815 ILCS 710/13 (West 2000)) and for discovery sanctions, pending appeal, and made a Rule 304(a) finding of appealability (see 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a)).

The appellate court rejected defendants' numerous claims of error and affirmed the circuit court judgment. We granted defendants' petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.

ANALYSIS

I. Act's Limitations Period

Defendants first argue that plaintiff's claim under the Act was barred based on the four-year limitations period contained in the statute. 815 ILCS 710/14 (West 2000). Defendants contend that where, as here, a plaintiff's cause of action is purely statutory, and the statute contains its own "built-in" limitations period, compliance with the limitations period is an element of the plaintiff's case and a jurisdictional prerequisite to the plaintiff's right to sue. See Pasquale v. Speed Products Engineering, 166 Ill. 2d 337, 366-67 (1995); Demchuk v. Duplancich, 92 Ill. 2d 1, 6-7 (1982). Defendants argue that because plaintiff failed to comply with the limitations period set forth in the Act, plaintiff's cause of action under the statute was extinguished.

Plaintiff initially counters that defendants' position before this court is contrary to their position at trial and, therefore, defendants are precluded from making this argument. See McMath v. Katholi, 191 Ill. 2d 251, 255 (2000). Plaintiff also asserts that the limitations period contained in section 14 of the Act functions as an ordinary statute of limitations and is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit. See People v. Wright, 189 Ill. 2d 1, 8-10 (1999).

Ordinarily, principles of waiver do not permit a party to complain of an error where to do so is inconsistent with the party's position taken in an earlier court proceeding. McMath, 191 Ill. 2d at 255. Defendants' argument, however, implicates the subject matter jurisdiction of the circuit court. The issue of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived. Currie v. Lao, 148 Ill. 2d 151, 157 (1992); People ex rel. Compagnie Nationale Air France v. Giliberto, 74 Ill. 2d 90, 105 (1978). Therefore, the issue may be raised at any time. Berg v. Allied Security, Inc., 193 Ill. 2d 186, 188 n.1 (2000); Dubin v. Personnel Board, 128 Ill. 2d 490, 496 (1989). Moreover, this court has an obligation to take notice of matters which go to the jurisdiction of the circuit court in the case then before us. Eastern v. Canty, 75 Ill. 2d 566, 570 (1979); see In re Estate of Gebis, 186 Ill. 2d 188, 192 (1999). Accordingly, we will consider the issue of whether the limitations provision of the Act was an element of plaintiff's case and a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit.

Simply stated, "subject matter jurisdiction" refers to the power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceeding in question belongs. People v. Western Tire Auto Stores, Inc., 32 Ill. 2d 527, 530 (1965); Van Dam v. Van Dam, 21 Ill. 2d 212, 216 (1961); 14 Ill. L. & Prac. Courts §16, at 183 (1968); see also Faris v. Faris, 35 Ill. 2d 305, 309 (1966); Restatement (Second) of Judgments §11 (1982). With the exception of the circuit court's power to review administrative action, which is conferred by statute, a circuit court's subject matter jurisdiction is conferred entirely by our state constitution. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9; In re Lawrence M., 172 Ill. 2d 523, 529 (1996); In re M.M., 156 Ill. 2d 53, 65 (1993). Under section 9 of article VI, that jurisdiction extends to all "justiciable matters." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9. Thus, in order to invoke the subject matter jurisdiction of the circuit court, a plaintiff's case, as framed by the complaint or petition, must present a justiciable matter. See People ex rel. Scott v. Janson, 57 Ill. 2d 451, 459 (1974) (if a complaint states a case belonging to a general class over which the authority of the court extends, subject matter jurisdiction attaches); Western Tire, 32 Ill. 2d at 530 (the test of the presence of subject matter jurisdiction is found in the nature of the case as made by the complaint and the relief sought); Ligon v. Williams, 264 Ill. App. 3d 701, 707 (1994) (court's authority to exercise its jurisdiction and resolve a justiciable question is invoked through the filing of a complaint or petition).

Our current constitution does not define the term "justiciable matters," nor did our former constitution, in which this term first appeared. See Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9; Ill. Const. 1870, art. VI, §9 (amended 1964). Generally, a "justiciable matter" is a controversy appropriate for review by the court, in that it is definite and concrete, as opposed to hypothetical or moot, touching upon the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. See Exchange National Bank of Chicago v. County of Cook, 6 Ill. 2d 419, 422 (1955); Health Cost Controls v. Sevilla, 307 Ill. App. 3d 582, 587 (1999); City of Chicago v. Chicago Board of Education, 277 Ill. App. 3d 250, 261 (1995). The legislature may create new justiciable matters by enacting legislation that creates rights and duties that have no counterpart at common law or in equity. M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 65. Through the legislature's adoption of the Act in 1979, the legislature created a new justiciable matter. The legislature's creation of a new justiciable matter, however, does not mean that the legislature thereby confers jurisdiction on the circuit court. Article VI is clear that, except in the area of administrative review, the jurisdiction of the circuit court flows from the constitution. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9. The General Assembly, of course, has no power to enact legislation that would contravene article VI. See Tully v. Edgar, 171 Ill. 2d 297, 308 (1996).

Some case law, however, suggests that the legislature, in defining a justiciable matter, may impose "conditions precedent" to the court's exercise of jurisdiction that cannot be waived. E.g., In re Marriage of Fields, 288 Ill. App. 3d 1053, 1057 (1997); People ex rel. Brzica v. Village of Lake Barrington, 268 Ill. App. 3d 420, 422-23 (1994); In re Estate of Mears, 110 Ill. App. 3d 1133, 1138 (1982). We necessarily reject this view because it is contrary to article VI. Characterizing the requirements of a statutory cause of action as non-waivable conditions precedent to a court's exercise of jurisdiction is merely another way of saying that the circuit court may only exercise that jurisdiction which the legislature allows. We reiterate, however, that the jurisdiction of the circuit court is conferred by the constitution, not the legislature. Only in the area of administrative review is the court's power to adjudicate controlled by the legislature. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9; Lawrence M., 172 Ill. 2d at 529; M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 65; see also In re Custody of Sexton, 84 Ill. 2d 312, 319-21 (1981) (holding that statutory affidavit provision, although mandatory, was not "jurisdictional" in the sense that it could not be waived).

The legislature's limited role, under our current constitution, in defining the jurisdiction of the circuit court stands in stark contrast to the significant role previously exercised by the legislature under our former constitution. See Mears, 110 Ill. App. 3d at1134-38 (tracing the development of jurisdiction from a purely legislative concept embodied in the 1818 constitution, to the concept now in force under the 1970 constitution). Under our former constitution, adopted in 1870, the circuit court enjoyed "original jurisdiction of all causes in law and equity." Ill. Const. 1870, art. VI, §12. The court's jurisdiction over special statutory proceedings, i.e., matters which had no roots at common law or in equity, derived from the legislature. See People v. Graw, 363 Ill. 205, 208 (1936) (circuit court's constitutionally derived jurisdiction did not apply to special statutory proceedings); Selden v. Illinois Trust & Savings Bank, 239 Ill. 67, 74 (1909) (court of general jurisdiction may have a special statutory jurisdiction conferred upon it). Thus, in cases involving purely statutory causes of action, we held that unless the statutory requirements were satisfied, a court lacked jurisdiction to grant the relief requested. See, e.g., Martin v. Schillo, 389 Ill. 607, 609-10 (1945); People ex rel. Kilduff v. Brewer, 328 Ill. 472, 479-84 (1927); Sharp v. Sharp, 213 Ill. 332, 334-36 (1904).

In 1964, however, amendments to the judicial article of the 1870 constitution became effective. These amendments radically changed the legislature's role in determining the jurisdiction of the circuit court. See M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 74 (Miller, C.J., concurring, joined by Bilandic, J.) (the sources and scope of the circuit court's jurisdiction changed "dramatically" with the 1964 amendments to the judicial article); Mears, 110 Ill. App. 3d at 1137 (a "revolution" was wrought by the 1964 amendments to the juridical article); see also Steinbrecher v. Steinbrecher, 197 Ill. 2d 514, 529-30 (2001) (discussing the change, under the 1964 amendments, from courts of limited jurisdiction to courts of general jurisdiction in a single integrated system). Under the new judicial article, the circuit court enjoyed "original jurisdiction of all justiciable matters, and such powers of review of administrative action as may be provided by law." Ill. Const. 1870, art. VI, §9 (amended 1964). Thus, the legislature's power to define the circuit court's jurisdiction was expressly limited to the area of administrative review. The current Illinois constitution, adopted in 1970, retained this limitation. See Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9.

In light of these changes, the precedential value of case law which examines a court's jurisdiction under the pre-1964 judicial system is necessarily limited to the constitutional context in which those cases arose. See M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 74 (Miller, C.J., concurring, joined by Bilandic, J.) ("terminology employed in earlier [pre-1964] decisions must be viewed in the constitutional context in which those cases were decided"); People v. Valdez, 79 Ill. 2d 74, 84-85 (1980) (rationale of cases decided under 1870 constitution were not applicable in determining whether circuit court had jurisdiction under 1970 constitution). Nonetheless, pre-1964 rules of law continue to be cited by Illinois courts, without qualification, creating confusion and imprecision in the case law.

Defendants in the present case rely on a rule of law that has its roots in the pre-1964 judicial system. Under this rule, as presently articulated by this court, a limitations period contained in a statute that creates a substantive right unknown to the common law, and in which time is made an inherent element of the right, is more than an ordinary statute of limitations; it is a condition of the liability itself and goes to the subject matter jurisdiction of the court. See Wright, 189 Ill. 2d at 7-9; Pasquale, 166 Ill. 2d at 366-67, citing Fredman Brothers Furniture Co. v. Department of Revenue, 109 Ill. 2d 202 (1985); see also Demchuk, 92 Ill. 2d at 6-7; Wilson v. Tromly, 404 Ill. 307, 310-11 (1949); Smith v. Toman, 368 Ill. 414, 418-20 (1938); North Side Sash & Door Co. v. Hecht, 295 Ill. 515, 519-20 (1920); Hartray v. Chicago Rys. Co., 290 Ill. 85, 86-87 (1919). This rule of law may have been appropriate under the pre-1964 judicial system when the court's jurisdiction to hear and determine purely statutory causes of action was conferred and limited by the legislature, and the failure to conform strictly to the statutory requirements prevented the court from acquiring subject matter jurisdiction. To the extent this proposition has any relevance today, it is confined to the area of administrative review -- the only area in which the legislature still determines the extent of the circuit court's jurisdiction. This principle is illustrated in this court's decision in Fredman Brothers.

Fredman Brothers arose under our administrative review law. At issue was whether the 35-day period for filing an administrative appeal was jurisdictional. See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 3-103. We recognized a distinction between ordinary statutes of limitations and statutes which both confer jurisdiction and fix a time within which such jurisdiction may be exercised. Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 209. We noted that where the court is in the exercise of special statutory jurisdiction, "if the mode of procedure prescribed by statute is not strictly pursued, no jurisdiction is conferred on the circuit court." Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 210. Because the circuit court was exercising special statutory jurisdiction under the administrative review law, we concluded that the filing period was jurisdictional and that judicial review of the administrative decision was barred if the complaint was not filed within the time specified. Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 211.

Fredman Brothers also referenced the early rule that "'statutes which create a substantive right unknown to the common law and in which time is made an inherent element of the right so created, are not statutes of limitation.' " Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 209, quoting Smith, 368 Ill. at 420. Such statutes, according to the opinion, "set forth the requirements for bringing the right to seek a remedy into existence," and are "jurisdictional, not mandatory." Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 210. Plainly, Fredman Brothers' reference to the early rule regarding statutory causes of action was not necessary to decide the case. To the extent, however, that Fredman Brothers suggests that such rule still has vitality today, it is limited to the area of administrative review, the context in which Fredman Brothers was decided and the only context, under our current constitution, that such rule could apply. We observe, however, that Illinois courts, in numerous cases outside the administrative review area, have incorrectly cited Fredman Brothers as authority for the proposition that a limitations period contained in a statutory cause of action is jurisdictional. See, e.g., Wright, 189 Ill. 2d at 7-9 (Post-Conviction Hearing Act); Pasquale, 166 Ill. 2d at 366-67 (Wrongful Death Act); Denault v. Cote, 319 Ill. App. 3d 886, 889 (2001) (Residential Real Property Disclosure Act); In re Estate of Goodlett, 225 Ill. App. 3d 581, 589 (1992) (Probate Act); People v. Ross, 191 Ill. App. 3d 1046, 1053 (1989) (section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure); Bradford v. Soto, 159 Ill. App. 3d 668, 674-75 (1987) (Dramshop Act); see also JoJan Corp. v Brent, 307 Ill. App. 3d 496, 507 n.4 (1999) (citing Pasquale for the proposition that the time limitation in the Mechanics Lien Act is a prerequisite to the court's exercise of jurisdiction). Without calling into doubt the outcomes reached in these cases, we emphasize that the rule set forth in Fredman Brothers and earlier case law, under which time limitations in statutory actions are deemed jurisdictional, is not a rule of general applicability to all statutory causes of action. Rather, the rule is limited by the constitutional context in which it first arose.

In contrast to Fredman Brothers, the present litigation did not arise under our administrative review law. The circuit court, therefore, was not exercising special statutory jurisdiction. Rather, the circuit court had jurisdiction to hear and determine plaintiff's claim because it was among the general class of cases -- those presenting a claim under the Act, a justiciable matter -- to which the court's constitutionally granted original jurisdiction extends. Even if plaintiff's complaint defectively stated its claim under the Act, the circuit court would not have been deprived of subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction does not depend upon the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. Scott, 57 Ill. 2d at 459; Western Tire, 32 Ill. 2d at 530; 14 Ill. L. & Prac. Courts §28, at 201-02 (1968); see also DeLuna v. Treister, 185 Ill. 2d 565, 579 (1999) (technical pleading requirements are not jurisdictional). Similarly, subject matter jurisdiction does not depend upon the ultimate outcome of the suit. A party may bring unsuccessful as well as successful suits in the circuit court. Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the limitations period contained in the Act is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit.

Our conclusion, while firmly rooted in our constitution, is also consistent with the trend of modern authority favoring finality of judgments over alleged defects in validity. See In re Marriage of Mitchell, 181 Ill. 2d 169, 175-77 (1998), citing Restatement (Second) of Judgments §12 (1982); see also Fields, 288 Ill. App. 3d at 1060, citing Restatement (Second) of Judgments §12 (1982). Labeling the requirements contained in statutory causes of action "jurisdictional" would permit an unwarranted and dangerous expansion of the situations where a final judgment may be set aside on a collateral attack. See 3 R. Michael, Illinois Practice §2.3, at 21 n.39 (1989). Even if the statutory requirement is considered a non-waivable condition, the same concern over the finality of judgments arises. Once a statutory requirement is deemed "non-waivable," it is on equal footing with the only other non-waivable conditions that would cause a judgment to be void, and thus subject to collateral attack -- a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, or a lack of personal jurisdiction. See Mitchell, 188 Ill. 2d at 174. As our appellate court has observed, "[b]ecause of the disastrous consequences which follow when orders and judgments are allowed to be collaterally attacked, orders should be characterized as void only when no other alternative is possible." In re Marriage of Vernon, 253 Ill. App. 3d 783, 788 (1993); see also Mitchell, 181 Ill. 2d at 177 (recognizing that numerous child support orders could be subject to collateral attack if the subject order were found void based on trial court's failure to strictly follow the statute). Our concern regarding the finality of judgments is all the more acute given the plethora of justiciable matters created by our legislature.

Having rejected defendants' argument that the limitations period in the Act is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, we next examine defendants' related argument that the limitations period is an element of plaintiff's claim, which plaintiff must plead and prove (see Hamilton v. Chrysler Corp., 281 Ill. App. 3d 284, 287 (1996)), rather than an ordinary limitations period, which provides a technical defense to the claim (see Sundance Homes, Inc. v. County of Du Page, 195 Ill. 2d 257, 267-68 (2001); Hartray, 290 Ill. at 87). Our determination of this issue is a matter of statutory construction. "[T]he judicial role in construing statutes is to ascertain legislative intent and give it effect. To aid in accomplishing this, a court will seek to determine the objective the legislature sought to accomplish and the evils it desired to remedy." People v. Scharlau, 141 Ill. 2d 180, 192 (1990); see also West American Insurance Co. v. Sal E. Lobianco & Son Co., 69 Ill. 2d 126, 129 (1977) (statutes of limitations, like other statutes, must be construed in light of their objectives, quoting Geneva Construction Co. v. Martin Transfer & Storage Co., 4 Ill. 2d 273, 289 (1954)). Because the language of a statute is the best evidence of legislative intent (In re D.L., 191 Ill. 2d 1, 9 (2000)), our inquiry begins with the language of the Act.

The Act regulates motor vehicle manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and dealers doing business in this State. 815 ILCS 710/1.1 (West 2000). In pertinent part, the Act defines and declares unlawful certain "unfair methods of competition and unfair and deceptive acts or practices." 815 ILCS 710/4 (West 2000). Among those practices declared unlawful is any action by a manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor or dealer, with respect to a franchise, which is "arbitrary, in bad faith or unconscionable and which causes damage to any of the parties or to the public." 815 ILCS 710/4(b) (West 2000). The Act also makes it unlawful for a manufacturer, wholesaler, or distributor "to adopt, change, establish or implement a plan or system for the allocation and distribution of new motor vehicles to motor vehicle dealers which is arbitrary or capricious or to modify an existing plan so as to cause the same to be arbitrary or capricious." 815 ILCS 710/4(d)(1) (West 2000). Significantly, section 13 of the Act provides that a franchisee or motor vehicle dealer "who suffers any loss of money or property" as a result of the employment by a manufacturer, wholesaler or distributor "of an unfair method of competition or an unfair or deceptive act or practice declared unlawful" by the Act, "may bring an action for damages and equitable relief, including injunctive relief." 815 ILCS 710/13 (West 2000).

Section 14 of the Act sets forth the limitations period applicable to actions for damages and equitable relief:

"§14. Limitations. Except as provided in Section 12,*fn1 actions arising out of any provision of this Act shall be commenced within 4 years next after the cause of action accrues; provided, however, that if a person liable hereunder conceals the cause of action from the knowledge of the person entitled to bring it, the period prior to the discovery of his cause of action by the person entitled shall be excluded in determining the time limited for the commencement of the action. If a cause of action accrues during the pendency of any civil, criminal or administrative proceeding against a person brought by the United States, or any of its agencies under the antitrust laws, the Federal Trade Commission Act [15 U.S.C. §41 et seq. (2000)], or any other federal act, or the laws or to franchising, such actions may be commenced within one year after the final disposition of such civil, criminal or administrative proceeding." 815 ILCS 710/14 (West 2000).

Section 14 does not expressly state an intent by the legislature that the limitations provision be treated as an element of a plaintiff's cause of action. In addition, section 14 provides that actions arising out of any provision of the Act "shall be commenced within 4 years next after the cause of action accrues." (Emphasis added.) 815 ILCS 710/14 (West 2000). Such accrual language is typical of ordinary statutes of limitations. See Fredman Brothers, 109 Ill. 2d at 209-10. Moreover, section 14 provides for tolling of the limitations period where the person liable under the Act "conceals the cause of action from the knowledge of the person entitled to bring it." 815 ILCS 710/14 (West 2000). The doctrine of equitable estoppel is also typically associated with ordinary statutes of limitations. See generally Jackson Jordan, Inc. v. Leydig, Voit & Mayer, 158 Ill. 2d 240, 251-52 (1994); Hagney v. Lopeman, 147 Ill. 2d 458, 462-66 (1992) (discussing concealment of cause of action sufficient to toll statute of limitations); Goodlett, 225 Ill. App. 3d at 590 (recognizing that concepts of equitable estoppel, tolling and waiver usually apply to statutes of limitations). Thus, the language of section 14 militates in favor of its treatment as an ordinary limitations period.

Such treatment comports with the purpose of the Act. In general terms, the Act is intended "to promote the public interest and welfare," "to prevent frauds, impositions and other abuses upon its citizens, to protect and preserve the investments and properties of the citizens of this State, and to provide adequate and sufficient service to consumers generally," through regulation of motor vehicle manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and dealers. 815 ILCS 710/1.1 (West 2000). More particularly, section 13 of the Act is intended to protect motor vehicle dealers and franchisees from unfair and deceptive acts and practices employed by manufacturers, wholesalers, or distributors by creating a private right of action. 815 ILCS 710/13 (West 2000). Construction of section 14 as an ordinary statute of limitations, which provides a technical defense which may be waived, better facilitates this purpose. See Knauz Continental Autos, Inc. v. Land Rover North America, Inc., 842 F. Supp. 1034, 1037 (N.D. Ill. 1993) (the Act must be liberally construed to honor the General Assembly's intent to protect automobile dealers). Accordingly, we reject defendants' argument that compliance with section 14 was an element of plaintiff's claim.

II. Continuing Violation Rule

Defendants argue, in the alternative, that even if the limitations provision in the Act is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, plaintiff's claim under the Act was time-barred. Underlying defendants' argument is their contention that the so-called "continuing violation rule" was ...


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