Southern District of New York Denies Class Certification in Fair Lending Suit Against Global Investment Bank

On May 14, the District Court for the Southern District of New York denied class certification status in a fair lending suit brought by the ACLU and NCLC against a global investment bank. Adkins v. Morgan Stanley, No. 12-CV-7667 (VEC) (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2015).  The Plaintiffs had alleged that the bank, as a significant purchaser of subprime residential mortgage loans, had caused a disparate impact on African-American borrowers in Detroit in violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.  In an exhaustive 50-page opinion, the court denied class certification on multiple grounds, including the variation in loan types and the role of broker discretion.  BuckleySandler anticipates the ruling will be widely cited in future fair lending class actions.

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Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Fair Housing Act Disparate Impact Case

On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, in which Texas challenged the disparate impact theory of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). In their questions to counsel, the Justices focused on (i) whether the phrase “making unavailable” in the FHA provides a textual basis for disparate impact, (ii) whether three provisions of the 1988 amendments to the FHA demonstrate congressional acknowledgement that the FHA permits disparate impact claims, and (iii) whether the Court should defer to HUD’s disparate impact rule. The Court is expected to issue its ruling by the end of June. For more information on the oral argument, please refer to our previously issued Special Alert.

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Special Alert: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Fair Housing Act Disparate Impact Case

This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, in which Texas challenged the disparate impact theory of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  Twice before, the Court granted certiorari on this issue, but in both cases the parties reached a settlement prior to oral arguments.

As described further below, in their questions to counsel, the Justices focused on (i) whether the phrase “making unavailable” in the FHA provides a textual basis for disparate impact, (ii) whether three provisions within the 1988 amendments to the FHA demonstrate congressional acknowledgement that the FHA permits disparate impact claims, and (iii) whether they should defer to HUD’s disparate impact rule.

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Federal Court Vacates HUD Disparate Impact Rule

On November 3, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia vacated HUD’s Disparate Impact Rule under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The court, in American Insurance Association v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, held that “the FHA prohibits disparate treatment only,” and therefore HUD, in promulgating the Disparate Impact Rule, “exceeded [its] authority under the [Administrative Procedures Act].” (Emphasis in original.)

In the Disparate Impact Rule, HUD provided that “[l]iability may be established under the Fair Housing Act based on a practice’s discriminatory effect . . . even if the practice was not motivated by a discriminatory intent.” 24 C.F.R. § 100.500. It then articulated a burden shifting framework for such claims. Id. § 100.500(c)(1)-(3). In vacating HUD’s Disparate Impact Rule, the court reviewed the text of the FHA and concluded that “the FHA unambiguously prohibits only intentional discrimination.” (Emphasis in original.) The court explained that the FHA lacks the “effects-based language” that makes disparate impact claims cognizable under other anti-discrimination statutes. The court reasoned that this lack of effects-based language created “an insurmountable obstacle to [HUD’s] position regarding the plain meaning of the Fair Housing Act.” The court further reasoned that this textual reading is consistent with the FHA’s statutory scheme and, in the case of insurance products, required by the McCarran-Ferguson Act.

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Special Alert: Federal Court Vacates HUD’s Disparate Impact Rule

Today, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia vacated HUD’s Disparate Impact Rule under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  The court, in American Insurance Association v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, held that “the FHA prohibits disparate treatment only,” and therefore HUD, in promulgating the Disparate Impact Rule, “exceeded [its] authority under the [Administrative Procedures Act].”  (emphasis in original).

In the Disparate Impact Rule, HUD provided that “[l]iability may be established under the Fair Housing Act based on a practice’s discriminatory effect . . . even if the practice was not motivated by a discriminatory intent.”  24 C.F.R. § 100.500.  It then articulates a burden shifting framework for such claims.  Id. § 100.500(c)(1)-(3).
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U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert. (again) in FHA Disparate Impact Case

On October 2, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, et al. v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., No. 13-1371, a case in which the Fifth Circuit became the first federal Circuit Court of Appeals to apply the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “effects test” rule (see The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., v. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, et al., Nos. 12-11211, 13-10306 (747 F.3d 275, March 24, 2014)), which authorizes so-called “disparate impact” or “effects test” claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). In granting cert., the Supreme Court accepted one of the two questions presented by the petitioners, which was, “Are disparate-impact claims cognizable under the [FHA]?” It did not accept the second question: “If disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the [FHA], what are the standards and burdens of proof that should apply?” The Supreme Court’s partial grant of the petition represents the third recent matter in which the Court has taken up the issue of whether disparate impact claims may be brought under the FHA. The first opportunity ended in February, 2012 when petitioners in Magner, et al. v Gallagher, et al., No. 10-1032, stipulated to dismissal due to concerns that “a victory could substantially undermine important civil rights enforcement throughout the nation.” The Court’s second opportunity, Township of Mount Holly, New Jersey, et al., v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., et al., No. 11-1507, was dismissed in November 2013, just prior to oral argument after a settlement was reached by the parties.

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CFPB Offers More Details On Plans To Supervise Auto Finance Market

On September 17, the CFPB released new information about its plans to supervise and enforce auto finance companies’ compliance with consumer financial laws, including fair lending laws. As it indicated it would earlier this year, the CFPB released a proposed rule that would allow it to supervise certain nonbank auto finance companies. Also as previously promised, the CFPB published a white paper on its method to proxy for race and national origin in auto finance transactions. Finally, the CFPB published its most recent Supervisory Highlights report, which is dedicated to its supervisory findings at depository institutions with auto finance operations.

The CFPB released the materials in connection with its September 18th field hearing on auto finance issues. These actions come roughly 18 months after the CFPB first provided guidance to auto finance companies regarding its expectations related to dealer “reserve” (or “participation”) and fair lending. Read more…

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California Federal Judge Allows Second Los Angeles Fair Housing Case To Proceed

On June 9, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied a mortgage lender’s motion to dismiss the City of Los Angeles’s Fair Housing Act suit, the second such denial by the same judge in recent weeks. Los Angeles v. Citigroup, Inc., No. 13-9009, 2014 WL 2571558 (C.D. Cal. Jun. 9, 2014). The case is one of several the city has filed alleging that certain mortgage lenders engaged in predatory lending in minority communities, the allegedly predatory loans were more likely to result in foreclosure, and that foreclosures allegedly caused by those practices diminished the city’s property tax base and increased the costs of providing municipal services. The instant order adopts the court’s prior holdings on all of the overlapping arguments presented by the lenders in the two cases. In addition, the court rejected the additional argument that the city’s suit was time barred because the city was on notice of its claims as early as November 2011 when it invited a law firm to “present proposed FHA litigation against ‘several large banking institutions.’”

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California Federal Court Allows City’s Fair Housing Case To Proceed

On May 28, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held, without addressing the merits, that the City of Los Angeles has standing to pursue Fair Housing Act and restitution claims against a mortgage lender, and that the claims were sufficiently and timely pled.  Los Angeles v. Wells Fargo & Co., No. 13-9007, 2014 WL 2206368 (C.D. Cal. May 28, 2014). The court denied the lender’s motion to dismiss.  The city alleges the lender engaged in predatory lending in minority communities, that the allegedly predatory loans were more likely to result in foreclosure, and that foreclosures allegedly caused by those practices diminished the city’s tax base and increased the costs of providing municipal services. The court found that by identifying specific properties alleged to have caused injury and asserting that regression analysis would support its claims and attenuated theory of causation, the city adequately pled a connection between the injury and the alleged conduct sufficient to support Article III standing. The court further concluded that the city adequately pled statutory standing under the FHA insofar as it alleged that its injuries are separate and distinct from the injuries of borrowers, and were proximately caused by the alleged lending practices. The court also held that the city’s claims were timely under the FHA’s two-year statute of limitations because it alleged broad discriminatory practices that are alleged to continue, no matter how changed over time (e.g., from redlining to reverse redlining).  Notably, the court did not consider whether the city slept on its rights and could have filed sooner notwithstanding the alleged continuing nature of the practices.  Finally, the court found that the city sufficiently pled facts, for purposes of surviving the motion to dismiss, to support claims of disparate treatment and disparate impact under the FHA.

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Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial Of Class Certification In Disparate Impact Case

On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of class certification in a disparate impact age discrimination case, holding that the court erred in considering merits issues when determining class certification. Stockwell v. San Francisco, No. 12-15070, 2014 WL 1623736 (9th Cir. Apr. 24, 2014). The case involves claims brought by a group of police officers on behalf of a putative class alleging workplace age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The class representatives allege that the city’s promotion policy had a disparate impact on employees over the age of 40. The district court denied the named plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class, holding that the claims failed to satisfy Rule 23(a)(2)’s commonality requirement because the named plaintiffs’ statistical analysis did not establish a general policy of discrimination under Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and failed to demonstrate that the policy caused any resulting disparate impact. On appeal, the court determined that in considering the statistical analysis, the district court improperly relied on merits issues to reach its conclusion rather than focusing on whether the questions presented were common to the members of the putative class. The Ninth Circuit held that “the officers have identified a single, well-enunciated, uniform policy that, allegedly, generated all the disparate impact of which they complain,” and that “whatever the failings of the class’s statistical analysis, they affect every class member’s claims uniformly.” Further, the court held whether the policy caused the disparate impact is a single significant question of fact common to all class members. The court reversed the district court’s holding on commonality, and remanded for consideration of other class certification prerequisites, including predominance.

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House Financial Services Chairman Presses CFPB On Auto Finance Enforcement

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) sent a letter today to CFPB Director Richard Cordray once again pressing the CFPB for information about its March 2013 auto finance guidance and its actions since that time to pursue allegedly discriminatory practices by auto finance companies. That guidance, which the CFPB has characterized as a restatement of existing law, sought to establish publicly the CFPB’s grounds for asserting violations of ECOA against bank and nonbank auto finance companies for the alleged effects of facially neutral pricing policies.

The letter recounts numerous exchanges between members of Congress—including both Democratic and Republican members of the Committee—and the CFPB on this issue to demonstrate what the Chairman characterizes as “a pattern of obfuscation” by the Bureau. Mr. Hensarling explains that through a series of written requests—see, e.g. here, here, and here—as well as in-person exchanges, lawmakers have sought detailed information about the CFPB’s application of the so-called disparate impact theory of discrimination to impose liability on auto finance companies. The letter states that the CFPB has repeatedly refused to provide certain key information used in applying that theory through compliance examinations and enforcement actions, including information about regression analyses, analytical controls, and numerical thresholds employed by the Bureau. Read more…

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Report Criticizes Auto Dealer Compensation, Add-On Product Practices

On January 23, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) released a report titled “Non-Negotiable: Negotiation Doesn’t Help African-Americans and Latinos on Dealer-Financed Car Loans.” The report provides the results of CRL’s investigation of whether racial disparities occur in auto financing, “considering the consumer’s attempt to negotiate their interest rates and comparison-shop at other institutions.” The CRL also examined “other aspects of car buying by race and ethnicity, including the purchase of ancillary ‘add-on’ products and the accuracy of information provided by the dealer to the customer during the buying experience.” CRL states that its research “supports the likelihood that dealer practices, such as interest rate markups, have a discriminatory impact on borrowers of color.” Specifically, the CRL states its investigation revealed (i) African-American and Latino consumers attempt to negotiate pricing on car dealer loans just as much as white consumers, if not more, and their levels of comparison shopping are similar to those of white buyers; (ii) more borrowers of color reported receiving misleading information about their loans from car dealers, which served to negate the impact of negotiations or comparison shopping; and (iii) African Americans and Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be sold multiple add-on products as white consumers. The CRL recommends that policymakers (i) prohibit dealer compensation that varies based on the interest rate or other material, other than the loan’s principal balance; (ii) require dealers to disclose the actual costs of every add-on product sold during the financing process and to reveal the cost of the car with and without add-on products; and (iii) prohibit dealers from representing that the buyer is required to purchase ancillary products in order to obtain financing.

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CFPB, DOJ Announce First Joint Fair Lending Action Against Indirect Auto Finance Company

This morning, the CFPB and the DOJ announced their first ever joint fair lending enforcement action to resolve allegations that an auto finance company’s dealer compensation policy, which allowed for auto dealer discretion in pricing, resulted in a disparate impact on certain minority borrowers. The $98 million settlement is the DOJ’s third largest fair lending action ever and the largest ever auto finance action.

Investigation and Claims

As part of the CFPB’s ongoing targeted examinations of auto finance companies’ ECOA compliance, the CFPB conducted an examination of this auto finance company in the fall of 2012. This finance company is one of the largest indirect automobile finance companies in the country which, according to the CFPB and DOJ’s estimates, purchased over 2.1 million non-subvented retail installment contracts from approximately 12,000 dealers between April 1, 2011 and present. The CFPB’s investigation of the finance company allegedly revealed pricing disparities in the finance company’s portfolio with regard to auto loans made by dealers to African-American, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers. The CFPB referred the matter to the DOJ just last month, and the DOJ’s own investigation resulted in findings that mirrored the CFPB’s.

Specifically, the federal authorities claim that, based on statistical analysis of the loan portfolios, using controversial proxy methodologies, the investigations showed that African-American borrowers were charged on average approximately 29 basis points more in dealer markup than similarly situated non-Hispanic whites for non-subvented retail installment contracts, while Hispanic borrowers and Asian/Pacific Islander borrowers were charged on average approximately 20 and 22 basis points more, respectively. The complaint also faults the finance company for not appropriately monitoring pricing disparities or providing fair lending training to dealers. Read more…

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Tentative Settlement Reached In SCOTUS Disparate Impact Case

On October 31, the Philadelphia Inquirer and national media outlets reported that a tentative agreement has been reached to resolve the underlying claims at issue in Township of Mount Holly, New Jersey, et al. v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., et al., No. 11-1507, an appeal currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could provide the Court an opportunity to rule on whether a disparate impact theory of liability is cognizable under the Fair Housing Act. Briefing before the Supreme Court has been ongoing—over the past week respondents filed their brief, as did numerous supporting parties, including a group of state attorneys general—and argument is scheduled for December 4. If the settlement holds, this will be the second time in recent years that a case involving these issues pending before the Court has settled before the Court had an opportunity to hear the case. Attention likely now will turn to litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over a HUD rule finalized earlier this year. That rule specifically authorized disparate impact or “effects test” claims under the Fair Housing Act. The case has been stayed by agreement of the parties pending the outcome in Mt. Holly.

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Petitioners File Supreme Court Opening Brief in Fair Housing Act Case

On August 26, the petitioners in Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. et al., No. 11-1507, filed their opening merits brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The petitioners argue that (i) under the ordinary meaning of the relevant FHA provision, intentional discrimination—and not a mere disparate impact—is required to establish a violation of Section 804(a) of the FHA, and (ii) because the HUD rule authorizing such claims “cannot be reconciled” with the plain language of the statute, it cannot be allowed Chevron doctrine deference and must be struck down. The respondents’ brief is due October 21.

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