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In one of the largest antitrust settlements in Florida history, software giant Microsoft has agreed to pay $200 million to resolve a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Florida consumers and businesses alleging that it violated the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The suit, filed in 1999 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on behalf of millions of Florida consumers, alleged that Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft used its monopoly power in the operating system and software markets to choke off competition and charge customers inflated prices. Under terms of the deal, Florida consumers who purchased Microsoft products between Nov. 16, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2002, will be able to recoup a portion of the money they spent. The settlement covers products such as the Windows operating system and the Office, Word and Excel software. But the software giant will not have to pay cash. Instead, it will issue vouchers ranging from $5 to $12 for each Microsoft product purchased. The coupons may be used as a rebate to purchase computer equipment and software from any manufacturer, including Microsoft rivals. Alan M. Grunspan, a partner at Kaufman Dickstein & Grunspan in Miami, an attorney for the plaintiff class, said Microsoft has agreed to pay all attorney fees in the case. The amount has not been determined. “We are very happy with the settlement,” said Robert Parks, a partner at Haggard Parks Haggard & Bologna in Coral Gables, Fla., who, along with Grunspan, served as local counsel for the plaintiff class. Despite the $200 million payout, Microsoft denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. Company representatives did not return calls for comment. Microsoft was represented locally by Hilarie Bass, national litigation chair at Greenberg Traurig in Miami. Bass did not return calls for comment. If any of the $200 million settlement total goes unclaimed, half of the value of the unclaimed vouchers will be given to Florida’s neediest public schools to buy computer equipment and software. Grunspan said the schools receiving the unclaimed vouchers are those in which at least half the students are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program. A number of out-of-state lawyers, led by Daniel Hume of Kirby McInerney & Squire in New York City, also worked on behalf of the plaintiffs. According to Grunspan, Hume has been a part of a national effort to file class action lawsuits against Microsoft on behalf of consumers in individual states for antitrust and unfair competition. In Florida, the class action was filed under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The suits have had mixed results across the country. But in San Francisco in January, Microsoft agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle two class action suits brought on behalf of all California purchasers of Microsoft products. The suits against the software maker on behalf of state consumers were launched after the U.S. Department of Justice and a number of state attorneys general sued Microsoft for violating federal antitrust law. The Justice Department settled with Microsoft in 2001. Several lawsuits filed by the states are pending. The Miami-Dade class action got a boost last August when Circuit Judge Bernard S. Shapiro agreed to grant class certification to the case. If Shapiro had denied class certification, the lawsuit likely would have ended. “Class certifications are where all class actions start or die,” Grunspan said. Microsoft filed an appeal of Shapiro’s ruling, which was scheduled to be argued before Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal on April 8. But days before the appeal was heard, the parties requested that oral argument be rescheduled to June because negotiations were going well. On Tuesday morning, in a hearing before Circuit Judge Henry H. Harnage, who is now presiding over the case, the settlement was announced and the judge granted preliminary approval. A fairness hearing, which is held to determine that the settlement is fair to all members of the class, is scheduled for Nov. 24 to finalize the agreement. Once the settlement is approved, class members will have four months to submit their claims for vouchers. The vouchers will be good for four years. Those eligible for vouchers include customers who bought personal computers of various brands that came equipped with Microsoft operating systems or software.

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