The case pits American Express against the Justice Department over the fees merchants pay each time a customer uses a credit card at the checkout, Time reports.
The Department of Justice argues that AmEx’s “take it or leave it” policy, which forbids its merchant partners from offering customers incentives to use cards that are cheaper to process, is anti-competitive because the credit card company is too important for most businesses to drop.
While all credit card companies require merchants to pay a processing fee – generally 2% and 3% of the total purchase cost – the government alleges that AmEx charges the highest merchant fees of any network.
Additionally, the Department alleges that even customers who use a different card end up paying for AmEx’s fees because merchants compensate by increasing prices.
For its part American Express denies the allegations, arguing that the company’s 53.6 million cards in circulation is much too small to be considered anti-competitive.
Officials for the company say the higher fees are necessary in order to provide merchants with services like fraud reduction programs, financing and marketing, and data analytics.
However, providing those services haven’t been enough to sway the Justice Department from seeking changes to AmEx’s practices.
The current issues began back in 2010 when the Department filed a lawsuit against American Express, MasterCard and Visa for a number of merchant restrictions that were found to cost consumers more for their purchases.
While Visa and MasterCard agreed to pay $5.7 billion to settle the antitrust allegations, American Express persisted.
The company did reach an agreement with merchants that allowed the company to add a surcharge to AmEx purchases as long as they added the same charge to all credit card purchases.
However, that agreement didn’t sit well with the Justice Department and it once again sought to make AmEx agree to the previous Visa and MasterCard settlement.
If the Justice Department is victorious in its case, consumers could see lower prices at check-out since merchants would no longer have to pass on processing fees to consumers.
Additionally, merchants would be allowed to offer incentives for customers who choose to use a competitor’s card for their purchases.
For American Express a loss could cut into the company’s profits, meaning there could be fewer customer benefits such as frequent-flyer miles and other discounts.