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Author: Steve Semeraro

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Credit Card Merchant Fee Class Action: The Release From Liability

1316485_67507183This is the final installment in my four-part series on the credit card merchant fee antitrust class action.  The district court is currently considering whether to approve the settlement.  Prior posts described the settlement and addressed the damages and injunctive relief provisions.  This one focuses on the release that the class would provide to the defendants.

Although broad releases are common in class actions, this settlement is unusual.  Typically, class settlements (1) release the defendants from further liability for past conduct, and (2) bar them from engaging in the future in the problematic conduct that gave rise to the litigation.  The proposed settlement here, by contrast, (1) fails to enjoin the merchants from continuing most of the practices that led to the litigation; and (2) releases the defendants from liability for their past and future conduct with respect not only to the rules examined in the litigation, but any to (1) any existing Visa or MasterCard rule; (2) any future rule that is substantially similar to an existing one; or (3) any conduct relating to a rule that fits into categories (1) or (2).

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Credit Card Merchant Fee Settlement — Injunctive Relief

Credit Card CroppedPrior installments in this series addressed the background leading up to the credit card merchant fee class action and the damages provisions in the b(3) opt out class action.  This post addresses the injunctive relief provisions that the settlement in In re: Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation styles as a mandatory b(2) non-opt out class action.  An upcoming final installment in this series will address the release provisions in the settlement.

B(2) classes are appropriate where the nature of the injunctive relief is such that it will necessarily affect every class member.  After setting out the relief proposed in the settlement, I’ll provide some thoughts on whether b(2) is really an appropriate device for this case.  Perhaps class action experts out there could weigh in on this issue in the comments.

The injunctive relief set out by the settlement is notable for what is not provided.  Nothing in the settlement addresses the core concerns in the complaint about (1) the collective setting of a default interchange fee; (2) the rule prohibiting merchants from rejecting the cards of, surcharging the card transactions of, or otherwise discriminating against some card-issuing banks, but not others; or (3) the rules making it impossible for merchants to route transactions over the least expensive network.

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Credit Card Merchant Fee Settlement – Damages Provisions

Credit Card CroppedThis post will evaluate the settlement’s damages provisions.  You can find my first post providing background on the litigation here.  The settlement provided that upon the court’s preliminary approval, the card networks would pay $6.05 billion, 2/3 from Visa and 1/3 from MasterCard into a settlement fund.  Depending on how many merchants chose to opt out, however, the defendants retained the right to reduce the fund through take down payments of up to 25% of the total and to kill the deal if opt outs exceeded that amount.  Opt outs exceeded that amount, but the defendants have not abandoned the settlement.  In addition to the flat fee award, Visa and MasterCard agreed to cut their applicable interchange fees by 10 basis points for eight months.  Rather than actually reducing the fees paid by merchants, however, Visa and MasterCard would withhold 10 basis points from collected fees that would otherwise have been paid to card issuers.  This amount would then be contributed into the settlement fund within 60 days from the expiration of the eight-month period.  This contribution would be non-refundable, regardless of opt outs.

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The Credit Card Merchant Fee Litigation Settlement

I’d like to thank Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog about In re: Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation.  This eight-year-old multi-district litigation has produced the largest proposed cash settlement in litigation history  ($7.25 billion) along with what is perhaps the most extraordinary release from liability ever concocted.  It may also be the most contentious.  Over half the name plaintiffs and over 25% of the class, including most large merchants (think Walmart, Target) and most merchant organizations, have objected.  On September 12, Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleesaon held a fairness hearing to consider the settlement, and the parties are awaiting his decision.  An appeal is a virtual certainty.

This post will provide background on the credit card industry pricing mechanisms that led to this litigation, the legal issues in the case, and the structure of the settlement.  (You can read more about the history of the credit card industry’s relationship to the antitrust laws here.)  In subsequent posts, I’ll separately analyze the damages and relief provisions in the settlement.  (If you can’t wait 8-) my working paper analyzing the settlement is here.)  If there are particular issues that you’d like to read more about, let me know in the comments and I will respond in subsequent posts.

The credit card industry is atypical, but not unique, in that it competes in a two-sided market, i.e., one that serves two distinct customer bases.  A card system like Visa provides both a purchasing device (credit cards) to consumers and a payment acceptance service to merchants.  (By way of comparison, the legal blogging market is also two-sided.  Concurring Opinions provides both an information forum to its readers and a platform to its advertisers.)

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