U.S. DOJ and plaintiff states filed suit challenging rules made by American Express, MasterCard and Visa that prevent merchants from offering consumers discounts, rewards and information about card costs, ultimately resulting in consumers paying more for their purchases. Visa and MasterCard settled with the Department of Justice and the litigating states immediately after the complaint was filed. Under the terms of the settlement, the two companies will be required to allow merchants to offer discounts, incentives and information to consumers to encourage the use of payment methods that are less costly. The proposed settlement requires MasterCard and Visa to allow their merchants to: 1) offer consumers an immediate discount or rebate or a free or discounted product or service for using a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment; 2) express a preference for the use of a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment; 3) promote a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment through posted information or other communications to consumers; 4) communicate to consumers the cost incurred by the merchant when a consumer uses a particular credit card network, type of card within that network or other form of payment.
American Express did not agree to settle,and a trial was held, in which the court found for the plaintiffs. . The trial focused on credit card “swipe fees” which generate over $50 billion annually for credit card networks. Plaintiffs argued that price competition over merchant swipe fees has been almost non-existent and for decades the credit card networks have not competed on price because of the rules imposed by each of the networks that limit merchants’ ability to take advantage of a basic tool to keep prices competitive. That tool – commonly used elsewhere in the economy – is merchants’ freedom to “steer” transactions to a network willing to lower its price. Each network has long prohibited such steering to lower-cost cards. The court held that the American Express anti-steering rules block merchants from using competition to keep credit card swipe fees down, which means higher costs to merchants’ customers. The decision means that agreements the plaintiffs reached previously with MasterCard and Visa can be fully implemented pending the conclusion of any appeals.
After remedy submissions from the parties, the court entered an order prohibiting American Express from adopting rules or entering contracts that block merchants from encouraging their customers to use a particular credit card. Under the order, merchants must be permitted to: offer discounts for the use of particular cards; express a preference for particular cards; disclose to customers the cost merchants incur when the customer uses particular credit cards; and engage in other conduct to encourage use of favored credit cards. The order also requires American Express to: repeal any rules that block merchant steering; notify merchants of their freedom to engage in steering activities; and adopt compliance measures to ensure that its employees understand that they cannot continue to block steering by merchants that accept American Express cards.
The Second Circuit reversed the lower court decision that the restraints had an actual anticompetitive effect on interbrand competition. The Second Circuit held that plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of demonstrating an anticompetitive effect on the whole market because “without evidence of the NDPs’ net effect on both merchants and cardholders, the District Court could not have properly concluded that the NDPs unreasonably restrain trade in violation of § 1.”