Private suits against MS to be handled by one court

Summary:A panel of federal judges ordered that more than two dozen private antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft be centralized at a court in Baltimore.

WASHINGTON -- A panel of federal judges ordered that more than two dozen private antitrust lawsuits filed nationwide against Microsoft Corp. be handled, at least temporarily, by a single court in Baltimore.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz will coordinate pretrial activities for 27 separate antitrust lawsuits filed against Microsoft (msft) in 17 federal jurisdictions. The order, signed Tuesday by U.S. District Judge John F. Nangle of Savannah, Ga., said centralizing the lawsuits, at least for now, will "promote the just and efficient conduct of the litigation" because testimony by experts was expected to "overlap substantially."

The move potentially gives plaintiffs' lawyers more concentrated firepower against the Redmond, Wash., software company. It also benefits Microsoft in that the company's lawyers are spared from having to respond to duplicative pretrial motions in different courts across the country. Those private claims, which carry the potential for triple damages against Microsoft, largely mirror the antitrust charges being heard in Washington in a suit filed by the U.S. Justice Department and 19 states.

"We're pleased to have these many class-action lawsuits consolidated into a more-efficient and manageable process under Chief Judge Motz, and we look forward to presenting our arguments to Judge Motz as soon as possible," Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan said.

The company had asked the panel to move the cases to a federal court near its headquarters in Washington state or to Chicago, where the appellate judge who coordinated unsuccessful talks to settle the Justice Department suit works.

"If I were Microsoft, I'd be relieved," said Warren Grimes, an antitrust expert at Southwestern University in Los Angeles. "It's going to be less of a hassle to defend a centralized case than to deal with a whole lot of different suits that are scattered all over the country."

Federal antitrust officials are preparing to recommend publicly later this week that Microsoft be split into two: an operating-systems company selling its dominant Windows programs and an applications company selling its Office business programs, along with control over other Microsoft properties such as its Internet content and Web sites. Microsoft earns about 45 percent of its revenue from Windows, and more than 40 percent from Office and other applications.

State attorneys general continued debating for a third day whether to endorse the sanctions proposal being offered by Justice, or to press forward with their own recommendations for U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Attorneys general who have led the state's coalition are trying to avoid the appearance of divisiveness, fearing that Judge Jackson may give less weight to recommendations that fail to gain the full support of all 19 states. The judge told lawyers during a meeting in his chambers in November, "I would not like to have to deal with divergent points of view" between the states and the Justice Department.

Topics: Microsoft, Legal, Security, Windows

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