A federal judge on Wednesday set a February trial date to hear the government's allegations that the proposed AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile violates antitrust laws and harms consumers.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle met for more than an hour with the lawyers involved in the antitrust enforcement action in Washington federal district court. Huvelle dedicated six weeks for the bench trial, which she scheduled to begin on Feb. 13.
Attorneys for AT&T had urged Huvelle to set the earliest possible trial date, possibly in January. The Justice Department said it would be prepared to go to trial in March. There was no talk of a settlement between AT&T and Justice in court today during a status hearing, held in the court's ceremonial courtroom. More than 100 spectators attended the hearing.
On March 20, the proposed $39 billion deal between AT&T and T-Mobile expires, said a lawyer for AT&T, Mark Hansen of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel. Hansen said in court the contract allows an extension of time to complete the acquisition. He said a "cloud of uncertainty" is looming over the deal and that AT&T is eager to wrap up the merger.
Hansen urged Huvelle to maintain a “fair and balanced” process, noting that the Justice Department has had more than five months to collect information during its antitrust review.
DOJ Antitrust Division attorney Joseph Wayland said the department filed a complaint much more quickly than the government normally would have done given the complexity of the case. Wayland noted in court that AT&T believed the regulatory process would take about a year.
Two competitors, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Cellular South, a regional carrier, recently sued AT&T in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the proposed deal. Hansen called it “curious” that competitors are now suing even though the proposed deal was announced months ago.
AT&T, Hansen said, will move to dismiss the two pending suits, which he described as an “echo chamber” for the Justice Department. Hansen questioned whether either of the two companies have standing to challenge the planned merger.
An attorney for Sprint, Steven Sunshine, an antitrust practice leader with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said Sprint does have a private right to sue. Sprint’s suit, Sunshine said, at its core mirrors the DOJ complaint. DOJ sued on Aug. 31.
Sprint’s suit, Sunshine said, provides a “pragmatic, realistic world view” of the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. “We would move heaven and earth to work with the Department of Justice,” Sunshine said.
Sunshine said any discovery material exchanged between AT&T and DOJ should be disclosed to Sprint. Privilege issues, Huvelle said, could in the coming weeks “gum up the works.”
The initial part of the hearing centered on the length of trial and how it will work. The government does not have fact witnesses, Wayland said. The government, he said, plans to call adverse witnesses from AT&T and T-Mobile. DOJ also expects to call expert witnesses.
One issue in the case, Wayland said, is whether the proposed deal would deliver certain efficiencies. “To understand whether that argument makes sense requires a fair amount of technical explanation,” he said.
Huvelle said she will meet in October for a hearing over AT&T’s motion to dismiss the suit Sprint filed. Huvelle said she does not anticipate consolidating the pending suits against AT&T.
Wayland said additional states may join the suit on the side of the Justice Department. So far, seven states have announced their participation with the federal government.