On February 3, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a regional fair housing non-profit organization based in New York City, filed a complaint alleging that a large bank discriminated in its mortgage lending practices on the basis of race and national origin. According to the complaint, the organization hired nine “testers” of various racial backgrounds to inquire about obtaining a mortgage for first-time homebuyers. Specifically, the complaint claims that the bank’s loan officers (i) used neighborhood racial demographics to steer minority testers to racially segregated neighborhoods and (ii) offered different loan terms and conditions based on race or national origin. The plaintiff is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and injunctive relief to ensure compliance with fair housing and fair lending laws. FHJC et al v. M&T Bank Corp., No-15-cv-779 (S.D. NY. Feb. 3, 2014).
On April 1, HUD held a special Fair Housing event and announced a national media campaign to help ensure that all Americans – regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, family status, and disability – receive equal access to housing, as per the FHA. Through various media channels, the new campaign will (i) increase the public’s awareness of housing discrimination; and (ii) explain how to report violations of the FHA. The new campaign is designed to further the agency’s enforcement efforts when FHA violations occur. At the same event, DOJ Acting Assistant AG Gupta delivered remarks regarding recent actions taken in response to alleged housing discrimination. Specifically, Gupta noted that while racial discrimination remains prevalent, familial status discrimination has recently become a significant concern and that the DOJ and HUD “continue to see the scourge of sexual harassment in housing.” Finally, Gupta emphasized that HUD’s proposed rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing is “an important way to ensure that the promises of the Fair Housing Act will continue to be fulfilled.”
On October 15, HUD announced the award of more than $38 million to fair housing and non-profit organizations in 43 states and the District of Columbia to address discrimination in the housing industry. Through HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program, grants are funded with the intent that they will “help enforce the Fair Housing Act through investigations and testing of alleged discriminatory practices.” Additionally, the grants are meant to help provide education on rights and responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act to housing providers, local governments, and potential victims of housing discrimination. HUD’s most recent categories of grants included: (i) Private Enforcement Initiative Grants; (ii) Education and Outreach Initiative Grants; and (iii) Fair Housing Organizations Initiative.
On October 7, the GAO published a report to help policymakers assess proposals for changing the single-family housing finance system and consider ways to make it more effective and efficient. To this end, the report first describes the market developments since 2000 that have led to changes in the federal government’s role in single-family housing finance. Most notably, the GAO found that as the market share of nonprime mortgages grew before the 2007-2009 financial crisis, the share of new mortgage originations insured by federal entities (including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) fell dramatically before rising sharply again during and after the crisis. Second, the report analyzed whether and how these market developments created challenges for the housing finance system. The GAO concluded that mortgage markets since 2000 have challenged the housing finance system, revealing the following weaknesses: (i) misaligned incentives between originators and securitizers on the one hand, and borrowers and investors on the other, as the former did not share the risks of the latter; (ii) a lack of reliable information and transparency for borrowers because originators were not required to share certain information; (iii) excessive risk taking due to a loosening of underwriting standards prior to the financial crisis; and (iv) a lack of federal oversight (since addressed by Congress through the FHFA and CFPB). Finally, the report presents a nine-pronged evaluation framework for assessing potential changes to the housing finance system designed to help policymakers understand the strengths and weaknesses of competing goals and policies, to craft new proposals, and to understand the risks of transitioning to a new housing finance system.
On August 13, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) published its annual fair housing report titled “Expanding Opportunity: Systemic Approaches to Fair Housing.” The paper summarizes 2013 fair housing enforcement actions and litigation, as well as federal policy developments, and provides fair housing-related data. NFHA reports that, overall, the number of fair housing complaints filed in 2013 remained flat compared to recent years, but notes that private fair housing organizations received more complaints of discrimination in real estate sales and homeowners insurance, as well as complaints of discriminatory housing advertisements by housing providers. According to the report, the DOJ Housing Section filed 43 cases in 2013, including 24 cases involving pattern and practice claims, compared to 36 cases in 2012, of which 21 involved pattern and practice. Of the 2013 pattern or practice cases, five alleged fair lending claims; 11 alleged rental discrimination on the basis of race, disability, sex, familial status, national origin, or religion; three alleged violations of the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act; three alleged discrimination in land use and zoning practices or policies by local governments; and one alleged disability discrimination by a homeless shelter. Finally, the report provides, for the first time, an analysis of HUD data by region, which includes a breakdown of complaints by protected class within each of HUD’s 10 regions.
On July 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed with prejudice the Fair Housing Act claims in three suits filed by the City of Miami against mortgage lenders. City of Miami v. Bank of Am., No. 13-cv-24506, 2014 WL 3362348 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014); City of Miami v. Wells Fargo & Co., No. 13-cv-24508 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014); City of Miami v. Citigroup Inc., No. 13-cv-24510 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014). The city alleged the lenders 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 held that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lexmark Intern., Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1387 (2014), purely economic injury is outside the zone of interest of the Fair Housing Act. The court explained that the “policy behind the Fair Housing Act (FHA) emphasizes the prevention of discrimination in the provision of housing” while the city’s alleged “economic injury from the reduction in tax revenue . . . [and] expenditures” in contrast is not “affected by a racial interest.” Thus, the court held that the city’s claim fell outside the FHA’s zone of interest and the city lacked standing to sue. The court explained that the recent decision in City of Los Angeles v. Bank of America, which allowed that city’s FHA claim to proceed, was not persuasive because, unlike in the Ninth Circuit, controlling Eleventh Circuit precedent requires the application of the zone of interest to FHA claims.
The court also held that the city could not establish proximate causation because it did not allege facts that isolated the lenders’ practices as the cause of any alleged lending disparity, citing the independent actions of a multitude of non-parties during the financial crisis that “break the causal chain.” The court rejected the city’s statistical correlations as insufficient to support a causation claim. Finally, the court held that the city’s FHA claims were time barred and that the continuing violation doctrine did not apply to extend the time limit. For further discussion of how courts should apply Lexmark to these types of municipal FHA cases the way the court did in this case, see the article published recently by BuckleySandler attorneys Valerie Hletko and Ann Wiles.
On July 1, HUD announced a conciliation agreement with a California mortgage lender, pursuant to which the lender will pay $48,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the Fair Housing Act when it denied or delayed mortgage loans to women because they were on maternity leave. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges associated with the sale of a dwelling on the basis of sex, including denying a mortgage loan or mortgage insurance because a woman is pregnant or on family leave. After a married couple complained to HUD that the lender denied their refinancing application because the wife was on maternity leave, HUD commenced an investigation that revealed the lender also allegedly denied four other applicants who were on maternity leave, or delayed their applications until after the women returned to work. The agreement requires the company to pay $20,000 to the couple that filed the complaint, and $7,000 to each of the other four applicants identified by HUD. The company no longer originates mortgages, but agreed to provide annual fair lending training to employees and management staff should it resume its mortgage operation. In a similar action last month, HUD required a Utah credit union to pay $25,000 to resolve allegations that the credit union discriminated against prospective borrowers on maternity leave. The HUD investigation was initiated after a married couple claimed their mortgage loan application was wrongly denied because the wife was on maternity leave. The credit union asserted that its mortgage insurer’s guidelines for calculating income for women on maternity leave allowed regular pay to be considered only if the women returned to work before the loan closed. Although the complainants previously resolved their claims, the credit union agreed to pay $10,000 to an allegedly affected borrower identified during HUD’s investigation, and $15,000 to a qualified organization to help educate the public about fair lending requirements and obligations, including the rights of borrowers on maternity, paternity, pregnancy, or parental leave at the time of an application for a home mortgage loan. The credit union also agreed to adopt an FHA-compliant policy with regard to calculation and treatment of maternity, paternity, and pregnancy leave income, and to identify when employment income may be used based upon the timing of a scheduled return to work date.
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.’”
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.
On March 5, the Senate voted 47-52 on a procedural motion that would have advanced President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to serve as Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined all voting Republicans to defeat the nomination. Mr. Adegbile’s participation in the legal representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing a Philadelphia police officer, reportedly played a factor in the voting.
Special Alert: Settlement In Key Fair Housing Case Moves Forward, Supreme Court Unlikely To Hear Appeal
Last night, the Mount Holly, New Jersey Township Council voted to approve a settlement agreement that will resolve the underlying claims at issue in a closely watched Fair Housing Act (FHA) appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., No. 11-1507. The agreement is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, after which we expect that the Supreme Court appeal will be withdrawn.
The Court had agreed to address one of two disparate impact-related questions presented in the appeal—specifically, the threshold question of whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA. Under current interpretation by several agencies and some Circuit Courts of Appeal, disparate impact theory allows government and private plaintiffs to establish “discrimination” based solely on the results of a neutral policy without having to show any intent to discriminate (or even in the demonstrated absence of intent to discriminate). Though not a lending case, the appeal could have offered the Supreme Court its first opportunity to rule on the issue of whether the FHA permits plaintiffs to bring claims under a disparate impact theory.
Instead, for the second time in two years, it appears likely that opportunity has been eliminated by a settlement entered shortly before the Court could decide the matter. Last year, the parties in Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2010) similarly settled and withdrew their Supreme Court appeal before the Court had an opportunity to decide the case. The Magner parties’ decision to settle and withdrawal the appeal was followed by numerous congressional inquiries into whether federal authorities intervened to assist the parties in reaching a settlement in order to avoid Supreme Court review of a prized legal theory. One member of Congress has already initiated a similar inquiry with regard to the resolution of Mt. Holly. Read more…
On November 5, HUD released a Conciliation Agreement with a lender alleged to have discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers seeking mortgage loans. In an administrative complaint filed following a review of the lender’s internal loan data, HUD claimed that the lender’s wholesale lending program violated the Fair Housing Act by underwriting, approving, purchasing, and securitizing mortgage loans in a manner that allowed pricing and denial disparities on the basis of race and national origin. HUD stated that the lender’s wholesale business, which granted third-party brokers discretion to negotiate fees and compensated those brokers through direct fees paid by borrowers to brokers, and/or through yield spread premiums paid by the lender, allegedly resulted in African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying higher APRs, receiving higher-priced loans, and paying more fees than similarly situated white borrows. HUD also alleged that African-American and Hispanic applicants were more likely to have their loan applications denied. HUD did not allege any intentional discrimination, and instead based its claims on its finding that statistical dipartites existed. To resolve the HUD investigation and complaint without litigation, and without admitting the allegations, the lender agreed to establish a $12.1 million fund to compensate allegedly harmed consumers and to distribute any excess funds to housing advocacy and counseling groups.
On November 6, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a final settlement to resolve the underlying claims at issue in Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., 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—has been delayed. Last week, the parties reportedly reached a tentative agreement, with the terms of such agreement subject to review and approval by the Mount Holly Township Council. The Council decided to table consideration of the settlement as the parties reportedly work to finalize the agreement.
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.
On October 22, the CFPB, the OCC, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve Board, and the NCUA (collectively, the Agencies) issued a joint statement (Interagency Statement) in response to inquiries from creditors concerning their liability under the disparate impact doctrine of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing regulation, Regulation B by originating only “qualified mortgages.” Qualified mortgages are defined under the CFPB’s January 2013 Ability-to-Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule (ATR/QM Rule). The DOJ and HUD did not participate in the Interagency Statement.
The Interagency Statement describes some general principles that will guide the Agencies’ supervisory and enforcement activities with respect to entities within their jurisdiction as the ATR/QM Rule takes effect in January 2014. The Interagency Statement does not state that a creditor’s choice to limit its offerings to qualified mortgage loans or qualified mortgage “safe harbor” loans would comply with ECOA; rather, the Agencies state that they “do not anticipate that a creditor’s decision to offer only qualified mortgages would, absent other factors, elevate a supervised institution’s fair lending risk.” Furthermore, the Interagency Statement will not necessarily preclude civil actions. Read more…