Special Alert: Disparate Impact Under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act After Inclusive Communities

On June 25, the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. held that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Court, in a 5-4 decision, concluded that the FHA permits disparate-impact claims based on its interpretation of the FHA’s language, the amendment history of the FHA, and the purpose of the FHA.

Applicability to ECOA

When certiorari was granted in Inclusive Communities, senior officials from the CFPB and DOJ made clear that they would continue to enforce the disparate impact theory under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) even if the Supreme Court held that disparate-impact claims were not cognizable under the FHA. It is reasonable to expect that the Court’s decision will embolden the agencies, as well as private litigants, to assert even more aggressively the disparate impact theory under ECOA. Read more…

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CFPB and DOJ Settle With Mortgage Lender for Alleged Discriminatory Mortgage Pricing

On May 28, the CFPB, along with the DOJ, filed a joint complaint against a California-based mortgage lender alleging that the lender violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act by engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination from 2006 to 2011 that increased loan prices for African-American and Hispanic borrowers. The DOJ also alleges that the lender violated the Fair Housing Act. According to the complaint, the lender’s mortgage broker compensation policy, which incented discretionary interest rate and fee increases to borrowers, resulted in approximately 14,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers being charged higher total broker fees on wholesale mortgage loans than non-Hispanic white borrowers. The complaint alleges that the higher fees were not based on the borrowers’ credit risk profile, but rather on the basis of race or national origin. The parties separately filed a proposed consent order which would require the mortgage lender to, among other things, pay $9 million in consumer relief to affected borrowers to resolve the allegations. The proposed consent order is currently pending court approval.

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CFPB Reminds Mortgage Lenders to Include Section 8 Income

On May 11, the CFPB issued Bulletin 2015-02, reminding creditors to include income from the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Homeownership Program when underwriting mortgage loans. Within the Bulletin, the Bureau noted that it “has become aware of one or more institutions excluding or refusing to consider income derived from the Section 8 HCV Homeownership Program during mortgage loan application and underwriting processes,” further mentioning that “some institutions have restricted the use of Section 8 HCV Homeownership Program vouchers to only certain home mortgage loan products or delivery channels.” The Bulletin warns that disparate treatment prohibited under ECOA and Reg. B may exist when a creditor does not consider Section 8 as a source of income and provides guidance on how lenders can mitigate their fair lending risk. In conjunction with the guidance, the CFPB also published a blog post, providing an overview of the Section 8 HCV Program and detailed how consumers can submit complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against.

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DOJ Settles with Illinois-Based Lender over Allegations of Discriminatory Lending

On May 7, the DOJ announced a consent order with an Illinois-based lender to settle allegations that the state-chartered bank engaged in a pattern of discriminatory lending, violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). According to the complaint, from at least January 1, 2011 to March 9, 2014, approximately 1,500 Hispanic borrowers and 700 African-American borrowers paid higher interest rates for their motorcycle loans than white borrowers. The average victim of the bank’s discretionary dealer markup system paid over $200 more during the loan term, allegedly because of their national origin and not because of their creditworthiness. Until March 2014, the lender’s business practice was such that the motorcycle dealers submitted loan applications to the lender, allowing the dealers “subjective and unguided discretion to vary a loan’s interest rate from the price [the lender] initially set.” In March 2014, the lender adopted a new policy that compensated dealers “based on a percentage of the loan principal amount that does not vary based on the loan’s interest rate;” since the implementation of the new policy, no discrimination has been found in the loans analyzed by the United States. Neither admitting nor denying the allegations, the lender voluntarily entered into a consent order with the U.S., agreeing to provide $395,000 in monetary relief to victims of the lender’s alleged practices.

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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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DOJ Submits 2014 Equal Credit Opportunity Act Annual Report to Congress

On April 13, the DOJ released its 2014 Annual Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) Report highlighting its activities to address credit discrimination. The twenty-page report highlights discrimination lawsuits and settlements in the automobile lending and credit card industry, as well as a consent order resulting from alleged discrimination on the basis of disability and the receipt of public assistance. It also includes information on the DOJ’s work under other federal fair lending laws including the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA). According to Vanita Gupta, Acting Assistant AG for the Civil Rights Division, in the five years since the Fair Lending Unit was established, the Civil Rights Division has filed or resolved 37 lending matters under the ECOA, FHA, and SCRA. Total settlements in these matters, including enforcement actions from 2014, have resulted in over $1.2 billion in monetary relief for affected borrowers and communities.

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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Arguments Involving Guarantor-Spouse’s Eligibility for ECOA Protection

On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments to resolve claims as to whether spousal guarantors could assert ECOA as a defense against a bank’s collection efforts requiring them to guarantee their spouse’s loans. In the case at bar, two men borrowed more than $2 million to fund a real estate development company, and their wives guaranteed the loan. Subsequently, the husbands were unable to make payments and the bank declared default and ordered payment both from the company and the wives as guarantors. Later, the wives filed suit against the bank claiming the bank’s requirement that they guarantee the loans as a condition of the credit constituted discrimination on the basis of marital status. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding the wives were not “applicants” for credit under ECOA. Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, 761 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. 2014) cert. granted, No. 14-520, 2015 WL 852422 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2015)

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DOJ and North Carolina AG Settle First-Ever Federal Discrimination Suit Involving Auto Lending

On February 10, the DOJ, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina and the North Carolina AG, announced the settlement of the federal government’s discrimination suit involving two “buy here, pay here” auto dealerships. According to the DOJ, this is the federal government’s first-ever settlement involving discrimination in auto lending. Filed in January 2014, the settlement resolves a lawsuit alleging that two North Carolina-based auto dealerships violated the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act by “intentionally targeting African-American customers for unfair and predatory credit practices in the financing of used car purchases.” The North Carolina AG further alleges that the auto dealerships’ lending practices violated the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The terms of the settlement require the two dealerships to revise the terms of their loans and repossession practices to ensure that “reverse redlining” ceases to exist; required amendments include: (i) setting the maximum projected monthly payments to 25% of the borrower’s income; (ii) omitting hidden fees from required down payment; (iii) prohibiting repossession until the borrower has missed at least two consecutive payments; and (iii) providing better-quality disclosure notices at the time of the sale. Also required by the settlement agreement, the two auto dealerships must establish a fund of $225,000 “to compensate victims of their past discriminatory and predatory lending.”

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CFPB Issues Guidance to Help Lenders Avoid Fair Lending Risk

On November 19, the CFPB issued a press release highlighting the publication of its compliance bulletin, “Social Security Disability Income Verification.” The compliance bulletin reminds lenders that requiring consumers receiving social security disability income to provide burdensome or unnecessary documentation may raise fair lending issues. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits lenders from discrimination against “an applicant because some or all of the applicant’s income is from a public assistance program, which includes Social Security disability income,” and the Bureau’s bulletin highlights standards and guidelines intended to help lenders comply with the requirements of ECOA and its implementing regulation, Regulation B.

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Eighth Circuit Holds Loan Guarantors Are Not Applicants Under ECOA

On August 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that ECOA clearly provides that a person does not qualify as an applicant under the statute solely by virtue of executing a guaranty to secure the debt of another. Hawkins v. Comm. Bank of Raymmore, No. 13-3065, 2014 WL 3826820 (8th Cir. Aug. 5, 2014). In this case, two individuals executed personal guaranties to secure several loans made to a residential development company owned by their husbands. After the company defaulted on the loans, the bank accelerated the loans and demanded payment from the company and the two individual guarantors. The guarantors, in turn, sued the bank, seeking damages and an order declaring their guaranties void and unenforceable, alleging that the bank required them to execute the guaranties securing the company’s loans solely because they are married to their respective husbands—the owners of the company. The guarantors asserted that such a requirement constituted discrimination against them on the basis of their marital status, in violation of ECOA. The court held that “the plain language of ECOA unmistakably provides that a person is an applicant only if she requests credit,” and that “a person does not, by executing a guaranty, request credit.” In doing so the court rejected the Federal Reserve Board’s implementing regulation that interpreted the term applicant to include guarantors. The court’s holding also creates a split with the Sixth Circuit, which recently “came to the contrary conclusion, finding it to be ambiguous whether a guarantor qualifies as an applicant under the ECOA.”

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CFPB Issues Guidance On Ensuring Equal Treatment For Married Same-Sex Couples

On July 8, the CFPB released guidance designed to ensure equal treatment for legally married same-sex couples in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).  Windsor held unconstitutional section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined the word “marriage” as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and the word “spouse” as referring “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The CFPB’s guidance, which took the form of a memorandum to CFPB staff, states that regardless of a person’s state of residency, the CFPB will consider a person who is married under the laws of any jurisdiction to be married nationwide for purposes of enforcing, administering, or interpreting the statutes, regulations, and policies under the Bureau’s jurisdiction.  The Bureau adds that it “will not regard a person to be married by virtue of being in a domestic partnership, civil union, or other relationship not denominated by law as a marriage.”

The guidance adds that the Bureau will use and interpret the terms “spouse,” “marriage,” “married,” “husband,” “wife,” and any other similar terms related to family or marital status in all statutes, regulations, and policies administered, enforced or interpreted by the Bureau (including ECOA and Regulation B, FDCPA, TILA, RESPA) to include same-sex marriages and married same-sex spouses.  The Bureau’s stated policy on same-sex marriage follows HUD’s Equal Access Rule, which became effective March 5, 2012, which ensures access to HUD-assisted or HUD-insured housing for LGBT persons.

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DOJ, CFPB Fair Lending Enforcement Actions Target Credit Card Repayment Programs, Marketing Of Add-On Products

On June 19, the CFPB and the DOJ announced parallel enforcement actions against a federal savings bank that allegedly violated ECOA in the offering of credit card debt-repayment programs and allegedly engaged in deceptive marketing practices in the offering of certain card add-on products. The bank will pay a total of $228.5 million in customer relief and penalties to resolve the allegations.

ECOA Violations

The CFPB and DOJ charge that the bank excluded borrowers who indicated that they preferred communications to be in Spanish or who had a mailing address in Puerto Rico, even if the consumers met the promotion’s qualifications. The CFPB and DOJ assert that as a result, Hispanic populations were unfairly denied the opportunity to benefit from the promotions, which constitutes a violation of the ECOA’s prohibition on creditors discriminating in any aspect of a credit transaction on the basis of characteristics such as national origin. Read more…

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CFPB Report Recaps Fair Lending Activities

On April 30, the CFPB published its second annual report to Congress on its fair lending activities. According to the report, in 2013 federal regulators referred 24 ECOA-related matters to the DOJ—6 by the CFPB—as opposed to only 12 referrals in 2012. The report primarily recaps previously announced research, supervision, enforcement, and rulemaking activities related to fair lending issues, devoting much attention to mortgage and auto finance.  However, the Bureau notes that it is conducting ongoing supervision and enforcement in other product markets, including credit card lending. The Bureau also identifies the most frequently cited technical Regulation B violations.   Read more…

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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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DOJ Alleges Community Bank’s Unsecured Loan Pricing Violated ECOA

Last month, the DOJ announced a settlement with a three-branch, $78 million Texas bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of national origin in the pricing of unsecured consumer loans. Based on its own investigation and an examination conducted by the FDIC, the DOJ alleged that the bank violated ECOA by allowing employees “broad subjective discretion” in setting interest rates for unsecured loans, which allegedly resulted in Hispanic borrowers being charged rates that, after accounting for relevant loan and borrower credit factors, were on average 100-228 basis points higher than rates charged to similarly situated non-Hispanic borrowers. The DOJ claimed that “[a]lthough information as to each applicant’s national origin was not solicited or noted in loan applications, such information was known to the Bank’s loan officers, who personally handled each loan transaction.”

The consent order requires the bank to establish a $159,000 fund to compensate borrowers who may have suffered harm as a result of the alleged ECOA violations. Prior to the settlement, the bank implemented uniform pricing policies that substantially reduced loan officer discretion to vary a loan’s interest rate. The agreement requires the bank to continue implementing the uniform pricing policy and to (i) create a compliance monitoring program, (ii) provide borrower notices of non-discrimination, (iii) conduct employee training, and (iv) establish a complaint resolution program to address consumer complaints alleging discrimination regarding loans originated by the bank. The requirements apply not only to unsecured consumer loans, but also to mortgage loans, automobile financing, and home improvement loans.

The action is similar to another fair lending matter referred by the FDIC and settled by the DOJ earlier in 2013, which also involved a Texas community bank that allegedly discriminated on the basis of national origin in its pricing of unsecured loans.

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