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On February 8, HUD issued a final rule authorizing so-called "disparate impact" or "effects test" claims under the Fair Housing Act. The rule provides support for private or governmental plaintiffs challenging housing or mortgage lending practices that have a "disparate impact" on protected classes of individuals, even if the practice is facially neutral and non-discriminatory and there is no evidence that the practice was motivated by a discriminatory intent. The rule also will permit practices to be challenged based on claims that the practice improperly creates, increases, reinforces, or perpetuates segregated housing patterns.
In its final rule, HUD codified a three-step burden-shifting approach to determine liability under a disparate impact claim. Once a practice has been shown by the plaintiff to have a disparate impact on a protected class, the final rule states that the defendant would have the burden of showing that the challenged practice "is necessary to achieve one or more substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interests of the respondent . . . or defendant . . . . A legally sufficient justification must be supported by evidence and may not be hypothetical or speculative." As proposed, the defendant would have had the burden of proving that the challenged practice "has a necessary and manifest relationship to one or more legitimate, nondiscriminatory interests."
HUD explained in the rule's preamble that, although it declined to use the term "business necessity" in the second prong of the disparate impact analysis, the phrase "substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest" is "equivalent to the 'business necessity' standard found in the Joint Policy Statement. The standard set forth in this rule is not to be interpreted as a more lenient standard than 'business necessity.'" HUD also highlighted the removal of the word "manifest," which was replaced by the language "a legally sufficient justification must be supported by evidence and may not be hypothetical or speculative." HUD noted that the revised language is "intended to convey that defendants and respondents . . . must be able to prove with evidence the substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest supporting the challenged practice and the necessity of the challenged practice to achieve that interest."
With respect to the less discriminatory alternative prong, HUD clarified in the preamble that the alternative must also serve the specified interest supporting the challenge. However, HUD declined to specify in the rule that the less discriminatory alternative must be "equally effective" as the challenged policy - which would have made the rule consistent with the legal standard set forth in the Supreme Court case Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989).
Other noteworthy aspects of the final rule include:
- HUD's decision not to address comments raising objections to the rule based on the fact that the disparate impact standard is inconsistent with that set forth in Smith v. City of Jackson Miss., 544 U.S. 228 (2005) and Wards Cove.
- HUD's statement that the rule applies to pending and future cases because it is not a change in HUD's position but rather a formal interpretation of the Fair Housing Act that clarifies the appropriate standards for proving a violation under an effects theory. HUD also chose not to conduct a cost/benefit analysis on this basis.
- HUD's clarification that the Fair Housing Act provides in these cases awards of damages, both actual and punitive.
- New language in the regulation stating that unlawful discriminatory conduct under the Fair Housing Act includes "servicing of loans or other financial assistance with respect to dwellings in a manner that discriminates, or servicing loans or other financial assistance which are secured by residential real estate in a manner that discriminates, or providing such loans or financial assistance with other terms or conditions that discriminate" on a prohibited basis.
- Language in the preamble restating HUD's position that the Fair Housing Act applies to homeowner's insurance.
Notwithstanding HUD's view that the final rule merely clarifies the existing interpretation of the Fair Housing Act, we expect that this rule will pose substantial compliance challenges for financial institutions.
On December 21, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) announced that it filed with HUD a housing discrimination complaint against a major insurance company regarding the offering of hazard insurance in a certain geographic area. According to the statement filed in support of its complaint, NFHA alleges that the company refuses to underwrite homeowners’ insurance policies for homes that have flat roofs in the Wilmington, Delaware area, a policy that NFHA charges has a racially disparate impact on African-American and minority communities. Although insurance and insurers are not explicitly covered in the Fair Housing Act, NFHA argues that federal courts have given deference to HUD’s interpretation of the statute, holding that the Fair Housing Act applies to all types of discriminatory insurance practices. NFHA’s complaint is based on its own testing of independent insurance agencies and a single university study of the relationship between roof type and race in the Wilmington area. NFHA claims that its testing of six insurance agencies shows that independent insurance agents were willing to underwrite policies on homes with flat roofs, while agents affiliated only with the insurance company targeted by NFHA cited a company policy that disallowed underwriting policies on such homes. Further, NFHA claims that the university study found a statistically significant relationship between minority populations and homes that have flat roofs, and therefore the “no flat roof policy” disproportionately impacts African-American and minority communities. Moreover, NFHA claims that there is no business justification for such a policy and that the insurance company does not apply the same policy in other cities. Under its fair housing complaint procedures HUD will now conduct its own investigation and determine whether further administrative action is required.
On August 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved a settlement between the DOJ and GFI Mortgage Bankers, Inc., a nonbank mortgage lender, resolving allegations that certain of the lender’s pricing policies disproportionately impacted African-American and Hispanic borrowers in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). The DOJ brought the case in part under the disparate impact theory of discrimination, by which it attempts to establish discrimination based solely on a statistical analysis of the outcomes of a neutral policy without having to show that the lender intentionally discriminated against certain borrowers. In the consent order, the lender acknowledged that a statistical analysis performed by the government indicated that the note interest rates and fees it charged on mortgage loans to qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers were higher than those charged to non-Hispanic white borrowers. Prior to the settlement, the lender had filed a motion to dismiss the DOJ lawsuit, arguing that the DOJ’s disparate impact claims are not cognizable under the FHA or ECOA, and challenging the government’s statistical analysis. Under the agreement, the lender agreed to pay $3.5 million over five years in compensation to several hundred borrowers identified by the DOJ, as well as a $55,000 civil penalty. The lender also agreed to enhance certain of its lending policies and monitor and document loan prices and pricing decisions. Whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA remains unsettled, though the U.S. Supreme Court may have an opportunity to address the issue in the near future. BuckleySandler recently prepared a white paper examining the issue and explaining why the FHA does not permit disparate impact claims. A copy of DOJ’s announcement of the settlement may be found at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/August/12-crt-1052.html.