CFPB, FTC, and consumer advocates ask 7th Circuit to review redlining dismissal
The CFPB recently filed its opening brief in the agency’s appeal of a district court’s decision to dismiss the Bureau’s claims that a Chicago-based nonbank mortgage company and its owner violated ECOA by engaging in discriminatory marketing and consumer outreach practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau sued the defendants in 2020 alleging fair lending violations predicated, in part, on statements made by the company’s owner and other employees during radio shows and podcasts. The agency claimed that the defendants discouraged African Americans from applying for mortgage loans and redlined African American neighborhoods in the Chicago area. The defendants countered that the Bureau improperly attempted to expand ECOA’s reach and argued that ECOA “does not regulate any behavior relating to prospective applicants who have not yet applied for credit.”
In dismissing the action with prejudice, the district court applied step one of the Chevron framework (which is to determine “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue”) when reviewing whether the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA in Regulation B is permissible. The court concluded, among other things, that Congress’s directive does not apply to prospective applicants.
In its appellate brief, the Bureau argued that the long history of Regulation B supports the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA, and specifically provides “that ‘[a] creditor shall not make any oral or written statement, in advertising or otherwise, to applicants or prospective applicants that would discourage on a prohibited basis a reasonable person from making or pursuing an application.” While Congress has reviewed ECOA on numerous occasions, the Bureau noted that it has never challenged the understanding that this type of conduct is unlawful, and Congress instead “created a mandatory referral obligation [to the DOJ] for cases in which a creditor has unlawfully ‘engaged in a pattern or practice of discouraging or denying applications for credit.’”
Regardless, “even if ECOA’s text does not unambiguously authorize Regulation B’s prohibition on discouraging prospective applicants, it certainly does not foreclose it,” the Bureau wrote, pointing to two perceived flaws in the district court’s ruling: (i) that the district court failed to recognize that Congress’s referral provision makes clear that “discouraging . . . applications for credit” violates ECOA; and (ii) that the district court incorrectly concluded that ECOA’s reference to applicants “demonstrated that Congress foreclosed prohibiting discouragement as to prospective applicants.” The Bureau emphasized that several courts have recognized that the term “applicant” can include individuals who have not yet submitted an application for credit and stressed that its interpretation of ECOA, as reflected in Regulation B’s discouragement prohibition, is not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” The Bureau argued that under Chevron step two (which the district court did not address), Regulation B’s prohibition on discouraging prospective applicants from applying in the first place is reasonable because it furthers Congress’ efforts to prohibit discrimination and ensure equal access to credit.
Additionally, the FTC filed a separate amicus brief in support of the Bureau. In its brief, the FTC argued that Regulation B prohibits creditors from discouraging applicants on a prohibited basis, and that by outlawing this type of behavior, it furthers ECOA’s purpose and prevents its evasion. In disagreeing with the district court’s position that ECOA only applies to “applicants” and that the Bureau cannot proscribe any misconduct occurring before an application is filed, the FTC argued that the ruling violates “the most basic principles of statutory construction.” If affirmed, the FTC warned, the ruling would enable creditor misconduct and “greenlight egregious forms of discrimination so long as they occurred ‘prior to the filing of an application.’”
Several consumer advocacy groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union, also filed an amicus brief in support of the Bureau. The consumer advocates warned that “[i]nvalidating ECOA’s longstanding prohibitions against pre-application discouragement would severely limit the Act’s effectiveness, with significant consequences for communities affected by redlining and other forms of credit discrimination that have fueled a racial wealth gap and disproportionately low rates of homeownership among Black and Latino households.” The district court’s position would also affect non-housing credit markets, such as small business, auto, and personal loans, as well as credit cards, the consumer advocates said, arguing that such limitations “come at a moment when targeted digital marketing technologies increasingly allow lenders to screen and discourage consumers on the basis of their protected characteristics, before they can apply.”