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.
But just as the federal officials had stated that they would continue to assert disparate impact under ECOA if Inclusive Communities invalidated disparate impact under the FHA, lenders still have a number of arguments that the Inclusive Communities Court’s analysis does not apply to ECOA, given the material differences between the text and history of the FHA and ECOA. First, the Court principally based its textual arguments on the use of “otherwise make unavailable” in Section 804 of the FHA—a section that applies to the sale and rental of housing but not to lending. The Court stated that this effects-based language “is of central importance” to its analysis. Although the Court also stated that it had construed statutory language similar to FHA Section 805—which applies to lending—the discussion of Section 805 is so brief as to suggest it was merely an afterthought. The Court repeatedly states its textual analysis focused on the text “otherwise make unavailable.” But ECOA contains no similar effects-based language.
Second, the Court’s analysis of the FHA’s amendment history is inapplicable to ECOA. The Court focused principally on three provisions which it characterized as “exemptions” from disparate-impact liability, and concluded that such exemptions made sense only if Congress were acknowledging the validity of disparate impact claims. But ECOA contains no similar “exemptions” from disparate-impact liability that might otherwise lead to the conclusion disparate impact is cognizable under ECOA.
Finally, while the Court also notes that disparate-impact claims are “consistent with the FHA’s central purpose,” this justification appears merely to support the Court’s textual and historical arguments. The Court has repeatedly cautioned that a statute’s purpose does not trump its text. Whatever similarities may exist between the purpose of the FHA and ECOA, the material textual and historical differences weigh heavily against treating the two statutes the same for disparate-impact purposes.
Burden Shifting Framework
Even if the Inclusive Communities analysis could apply to ECOA, the Court’s emphasis on rigorous application of the three-step burden-shifting framework to analyze disparate impact claims—and protect against “abusive disparate-impact claims” —is likely to impose significant burdens on regulators and plaintiffs seeking to bring disparate impact claims under ECOA. The Court’s articulation of the steps in the burden-shifting framework are materially different—and more friendly to lenders—than those applied by federal agencies (e.g., in HUD’s disparate impact rule). While it is possible that the government and private plaintiffs will argue that the burden shifting framework outlined in Inclusive Communities applies only to the FHA, the Court’s reasoning supports applying the same framework to other civil rights laws—including ECOA.
First, the Court has reaffirmed the significant burden plaintiffs must bear in satisfying the first step of the burden-shifting framework: establishing a prima facie case. The Court noted that a “robust causality requirement” must be satisfied to show that a specific policy caused a statistical disparity to “protect defendants from being held liable for racial disparities they did not create.” “[A] disparate-impact claim that relies on a statistical disparity must fail if the plaintiff cannot point to a defendant’s policy or policies causing that disparity.” The Court emphasized that “prompt resolution of these cases [by courts] is important.” This, when taken together with the Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, may make maintaining a disparate impact claim under ECOA particularly difficult when addressing such practices as discretionary pricing (e.g., dealer markup in the auto finance context).
Second, with respect to the second step of the framework, the Court explained that “[g]overnmental or private policies are not contrary to the disparate-impact requirement unless they are ‘artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.’” The Court noted that this is critical to ensure that defendants “must not be prevented from achieving legitimate objectives.” Specifically, the Court endorsed the importance of considering “practical business choices and profit-related decisions that sustain a vibrant and dynamic free-enterprise system” in determining whether a company’s policy is supported by a legitimate business justification. The Court further explained that “entrepreneurs must be given latitude to consider market factors,” as well as other “objective” and “subjective” factors.
Third, the Court emphasized that before rejecting a “business justification,” a court “must determine that a plaintiff has shown that there is an available alternative practice that has less disparate impact and serves the entity’s legitimate needs.” (internal quotations and alterations omitted). Significantly, and in contrast to previous interpretations by federal agencies, the Court clarified that the plaintiff bears the burden of showing a less discriminatory alternative in the third step of the burden-shifting framework.
The Court cautioned that a rigorous application of the burden-shifting framework is necessary to prevent disparate-impact liability from supplanting nondiscriminatory private choice: “Were standards for proceeding with disparate-impact suits not to incorporate at least the safeguards discussed here, then disparate-impact liability might displace valid governmental and private priorities, rather than solely removing artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers. And that, in turn, would set our Nation back in its quest to reduce the salience of race in our social and economic system.” (internal citations and alterations omitted).