Swipe-Fee Settlement Objectors Spared Contempt Finding

Groups opposing the Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. multibillion-dollar settlement of swipe-fee price-fixing claims won’t be held in contempt for failing to fully correct websites a federal judge found misleading.

U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, New York, today said he would “give the benefit of the doubt” to trade associations opposing the agreement and told them they should better police the websites for misstatements.

“There’s a powerful incentive for the objectors to be sure they’re not basing their argument on ground that’s not so firm,” Gleeson said.

Gleeson said on April 11 that the sites contained “bad information” that may have persuaded some merchants to drop out of the settlement, and he ordered the groups to make corrections. One of the sites, Merchantsobject.com, continued to “obfuscate” key points as of April 24, the judge said in a written order that day.

The estimated $7.25 billion settlement, described by plaintiffs as the largest in an antitrust case, would end an eight-year legal battle over Visa and MasterCard’s swipe, or interchange, fees. The plaintiffs in the case accused the companies of illegally fixing the fees charged merchants when customers pay with credit cards.

Settlement Opponents

A group of trade associations and large retailers oppose the settlement, saying the card companies would be given too much leeway to raise rates in the future.

Gleeson told the groups on April 11 that the websites, including Merchantsobject, should carry disclaimers that changes were ordered, describe the consequences of opting out of the settlement and prominently display the Web address of an official court-approved public information site, paymentcardsettlement.com.

Retailers who chose to drop out of the deal based on what the judge described as misleading information on the sites may still have an opportunity to receive payments, Gleeson said today in court.

“There will be a remedy for that,” Gleeson said, adding that the specifics would be determined later. A hearing on final approval of the settlement is scheduled for Sept. 12.

In an April 24 letter to the court, a lawyer for the trade associations, Jeffrey Shinder, asked that the judge also order corrections to the plaintiffs lawyers’ websites and to public notices, saying that they, too, contained misleading statements.

Overstate Benefits

Shinder said the sites and notices overstate the benefits merchants would receive by signing on to the deal. Gleeson today rejected the request to make those changes.

“We are gratified that the court did not enter a contempt order against the trade associations,” Shinder said in an e-mail, adding that the groups are disappointed the judge ordered no changes to the lawyers’ websites.

“That misleading information is far more serious than the issues that have been found regarding the trade associations websites, including merchantsobject.com,” Shinder said.

The case is In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, 05-md-01720, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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