Attorney K. Craig Wildfang forged $5.7 billion settlement for retailers in their fight against Visa, MasterCard and card-issuing banks.
K. Craig Wildfang’s office on the 23rd floor of a downtown Minneapolis office tower is unremarkable, with little decoration beyond some poster-size travel photos and a smattering of bankers’ boxes and books.
Then there’s the yellow Post-it note on the wall with a number scrawled on it: $5,737,500,000.
That’s the latest value of a settlement Wildfang forged for the nation’s retailers in their battle against Visa, MasterCard and card-issuing banks over swipe fees. The largest private class-action antitrust settlement in U.S. history, the deal aims to resolve a long and bitter conflict over the billions in fees that retailers, and ultimately consumers, pay on card transactions.
Many antitrust experts consider the settlement a remarkable feat. But some retailers despise it as a cop-out that leaves the card giants free to set the fees however they want. The dollar value, first announced last year, has shrunk from $7.25 billion to $5.7 billion after industry powerhouses including Target Corp. have opted out.
Now, after years of legal wrangling, Wildfang is waiting for U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in New York to make a final decision on the deal.
“I devoted seven years of my life to this case,” Wildfang said. “People can disagree with me, but I really did do my best.”
Wildfang, 61, has earned a reputation as one of the country’s top antitrust litigators for plaintiffs. He led the giant case from its inception in 2005, when he filed the original interchange lawsuit for the class action’s first plaintiff, St. Paul businessman Mike Schumann.
The co-owner of Traditions Classic Home Furnishings, Schumann was ultimately one of 7 million to 8 million retailers in the class, just about any merchant who had swiped a credit or debit card since 2004.
It’s been a marathon.
Wildfang’s children, now in college, grew up with “the interchange case.” Along the way, Wildfang developed a chronic back problem that, he admitted, added to the challenge. He blames the bad back on years at desks and on airplanes.
Though he lives in Eden Prairie with his wife and two standard poodles, his work is national. He hasn’t tried a case in Minneapolis in about 15 years.
In his office, he demonstrates a hydraulic workstation that enables him to work part of the day standing up. Four back surgeries have left him with fused vertebrae.
Wildfang argues, as he is wont to do, that $7.25 billion is still the better number for the size of the interchange settlement since it captures the value of relief that opt-outs will get in pursuing their own claims in court. The requested attorneys’ fees have fallen from $720 million to about $570 million, plus $27 million for out-of-pocket expenses.
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, the firm where Wildfang works, hopes to get a quarter to one-third of that, or about $142 million to $190 million for eight years of work. The next largest chunk goes to colead counsels in Philadelphia and San Diego who also were appointed to represent the country’s retailers. But Judge Gleeson could reduce the entire amount.
Not that checks will go out soon. Appeals are a given.
Born in Iowa, Wildfang grew up in what he describes as a conservative German family. He was about 4 when the family moved to Bloomington.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School, he tackled a range of cases, even prosecuting a Minneapolis cop for beating a teenage girl with a flashlight.