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On August 22, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California granted in part and denied in part a national bank’s motion to dismiss an action by the City of Sacramento (City) alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California Fair Employment and Housing Act. In its complaint, the City alleged that the bank violated the FHA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act by providing minority borrowers mortgage loans with less favorable terms than similarly situated non-minority borrowers, leading to disproportionate defaults and foreclosures causing reduced property tax revenue and increased costs for municipal services for the city. The bank moved to dismiss the action. In reviewing the motion, the court looked to the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Bank of America v. City of Miami (previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert), which held that municipal plaintiffs may be “aggrieved persons” authorized to bring suit under the FHA against lenders for injuries allegedly flowing from discriminatory lending practices. The court rejected the majority of the bank’s arguments, denying the motion as to the City’s tax revenue claims and non-economic claims. The court concluded that “there is ‘no reason to think as a general matter that the City’s [tax revenue] claims are out of step with the ‘nature of the statutory cause of action’ and the remedial scheme that Congress created’” in the FHA. Conversely, as for the claims for increased municipal services costs, such as police, fire fighting, and code enforcement, the court found that the claims “rely on conclusory allegations and a foreseeability-only theory without establishing proximate cause” and granted the bank’s motion to dismiss, but allowed the City leave to amend the complaint to establish proximate cause.
On July 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed the City of Miami Gardens (City) Fair Housing Act (FHA) suit against a national bank for lack of standing. This decision was the result of the appeal of a lower court decision previously covered by InfoBytes in June 2018. In the prior decision, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the national bank’s motion for summary judgment. This was a loss for the City, which had argued that the bank made loans that were more expensive for minority borrowers as compared to non-minority borrowers, resulting in greater rates of default and foreclosure and leading to reduced property values and tax revenue for the City. The district court granted the national bank summary judgment based on the City’s failure to present sufficient evidence of discriminatory lending.
On appeal, the bank argued that the district court should have dismissed the claims for lack of standing because “‘the undisputed evidence confirmed that none of the 153 loans originated by [the bank] [within the limitation period] foreclosed,’ so the City could not have suffered an injury as a result of any of [the] loans.” The 11th Circuit agreed that the City lacked standing, concluding that the City’s evidence that certain loans may go into foreclosure at some point in the future “does not satisfy the requirement that a threatened injury be ‘imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.’” Moreover, although the City referenced ten loans that had gone into foreclosure, the appellate court ruled that “the City did not produce any evidence of the effect of these foreclosures on property-tax revenues or municipal spending,” nor that the loans were issued on discriminatory terms. Accordingly, the 11th Circuit vacated the district court’s award of summary judgment, and held that the district court should have dismissed the action on standing grounds.
On August 16, HUD announced a proposed rule amending the agency’s interpretation of the Fair Housing Act’s disparate impact standard (also known as the “2013 Disparate Impact Regulation”) to bring the rule “into closer alignment with the analysis and guidance” provided in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) and to codify HUD’s position that its rule is not intended to infringe on the states’ regulation of insurance.
The proposal codifies the burden shifting framework outlined in Inclusive Communities, adding five elements that a plaintiff must plead to support allegations that a specific, identifiable, policy or practice has a discriminatory effect. The five elements would require a plaintiff to adequately allege (i) the challenged policy or practice is “arbitrary, artificial, and unnecessary” to achieve a valid interest or legitimate objective; (ii) a “robust causal link” between the challenged policy or practice and a disparate impact on members of a protected class; (iii) the challenged policy or practice has an adverse effect on members of a protected class; (iv) the disparity caused by the policy or practice is significant (the disparity must be material); and (v) the complaining party’s alleged injury is directly caused by the challenged policy or practice. HUD emphasizes that plaintiffs alleging a single event, “will likely not meet the standard” of the proposal unless “the plaintiff can establish that the one-time decision is in fact a policy or practice.”
The proposed rule also provides methods for defendants to rebut a disparate impact claim, including (i) showing its discretion is materially limited by a third party, such as through a controlling law or binding court order; and (ii) showing the algorithmic model relied on does not use inputs that are substitutes for protected characteristics and is predictive of risk or other valid objective, was created or maintained by a recognized third party, or that a neutral third party has analyzed the model and determined it is a demonstrably and statistically sound algorithm.
The proposal, which has yet to be released by HUD, is reportedly under review by Congress and is set to be published in the Federal Register afterward. Comments will be due 60 days after publication.
On July 29, HUD announced a conciliation agreement to resolve allegations that a California-based bank engaged in redlining practices from 2014 to at least 2017 against African-American and Latino mortgage applicants in the Los Angeles region. In 2017, a California-based community advocacy organization filed a complaint with HUD asserting that the bank violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in discriminatory acts, which allegedly resulted in a lower number of mortgages made to African-American and Latino borrowers relative to the area’s demographics and to the industry as a whole. Additionally, the complaint claimed that the bank located and maintained its branches in areas that do not serve minority neighborhoods or borrowers. While the bank denies having engaged in any discriminatory behavior, it agreed to (i) invest $5 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase credit opportunities for residents of majority-minority neighborhoods; (ii) contribute $1.3 million to advertising and community outreach; and (iii) provide $1 million in grants for various financial education, counseling, community revitalization, and homelessness programs. The bank also committed to originating “$100,000,000 in home purchase, home improvement and home refinance loans to borrowers in majority-minority areas, and to open a full-service branch serving the banking and credit needs of residents in a majority-minority and low- and moderate-income neighborhood.”
On July 30, the DOJ announced several settlements with a group of California-based mortgage loan modification service providers to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act by targeting Hispanic homeowners for predatory mortgage loan modification services and interfering with the homeowners’ ability to keep their homes. According to the DOJ, the defendants persuaded as many as 400 Hispanic homeowners to pay approximately $5,000 for audits advertised as essential for loan modifications, but in actuality had no impact on the modification process and provided no financial benefit. Additionally, the DOJ claimed that the defendants “encouraged their clients to stop making mortgage payments and instructed them to cease contact with their lenders,” which led to many homeowners losing their homes due to defaulted mortgages. The lawsuit stemmed from complaints filed with HUD by two of the defendants’ former clients, who intervened in the lawsuit, along with their attorney, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), and members of one of the former client’s family.
While three of the companies identified as defendants in the complaint ceased operations, the settlement agreements resolve allegations against the individuals responsible for owning and operating the now-defunct companies. Under the terms of the agreements, the individual defendants have agreed to, among other things, (i) refrain from engaging in the discriminatory conduct; and (ii) contribute more than $148,000 towards a restitution fund to reimburse fees paid to the defendants by former clients. Additionally, five of the individual defendants have agreed to pay an additional $405,699 in suspended judgments should it be determined the defendants misrepresented their current financial situations. The DOJ noted that the individual defendants have also agreed to an additional $91,650 in compensation in separate settlements reached with their former clients and HERA.
On July 23, HUD released a Conciliation Agreement with a real estate group and a mortgage company and its agents (collectively, the “respondents”) who allegedly discriminated against African-American home seekers. The complaint, brought by the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County (FHCRC), claims the respondents violated the Fair Housing Act during a series of FHCRC fair housing tests whereby African-American “testers” were falsely informed that there were no available homes and were subject to tougher pre-qualification requirements than white testers. While the respondents deny having engaged in any discriminatory behavior, they have agreed to pay $10,000 in relief and provide fair housing training to their agents.
On July 18, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied defendants’ motion to dismiss claims that they violated the Fair Housing Act’s anti-discrimination provisions by allegedly failing to properly maintain bank-owned properties in African American and Latino neighborhoods. According to the plaintiffs—a group of private fair housing organizations along with three individual homeowners—the bank and its maintenance contractor regularly maintained similar bank-owned properties in white neighborhoods, while properties in minority neighborhoods were allowed to fall into disrepair. The plaintiffs cited claims for discrimination under both disparate treatment and disparate impact theories, and asserted that the conduct allegedly depreciated the property values of current residents, discouraged buyers from purchasing homes in a particular neighborhood, and limited available housing. The defendants argued, however, that the fair housing organizations do not have standing to sue because they failed to trace their alleged injury to the conduct at issue or to sufficiently demonstrate they were harmed by the alleged conduct. Moreover, the defendants asserted that the Maryland court does not have jurisdiction over the dispute and that the claims were untimely.
The court found that the plaintiffs did sufficiently plead an injury-in-fact, stating, “[h]ere the scope and specificity of the plaintiffs’ investigation and the alleged precision with which its proffered regression analysis can attribute the plaintiffs’ injuries to the defendants’ actions, provide plausible proximate cause.” The court also reasoned that it had jurisdictional authority because, even though none of the fair housing organizations are Maryland entities, some of the alleged conduct has occurred in Maryland and state residents have alleged harm. As to the question of timeliness, the court noted that the statute of limitations concerns are “obviated by the continuing violation doctrine.”
On June 13, the DOJ announced a settlement with an Indiana bank resolving allegations the bank engaged in unlawful “redlining” in Indianapolis by intentionally avoiding predominantly African-American neighborhoods in violation of the Fair Housing Act and ECOA. In the complaint, the DOJ alleges that from 2011 to 2017, among other things, the bank (i) excluded Marion County in Indianapolis and its “50 majority-Black census tracts” from its Community Reinvestment Act assessment area; (ii) did not have any branch locations in majority-Black areas of the county; (iii) did not market in the majority-Black areas of the country; and (iv) had a residential mortgage lending policy that allegedly showed preference to the location of borrowers, not the creditworthiness. Under the settlement agreement, which is subject to court approval, the bank will, among other things, expand its business services and lending to the predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Indianapolis and will invest at least $1.12 million in a special loan subsidy fund to be used to increase credit opportunities in the specified neighborhoods. Additionally, the bank will designate a full-time Director of Community Lending and Development to oversee the continued development of the bank’s lending in the specified areas.
On May 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that the City of Miami plausibly alleged that two national banks’ lending practices violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and led to defaults, foreclosures, and vacancies, and eventually reduced property values and corresponding property tax revenues. The court did so by finding “some direct relation” between the City’s tax revenue injuries and the Bank’s alleged violations of the FHA. The case returned to the 11th Circuit after having been appealed to and resolved in part in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, where the Court held that municipal plaintiffs may be “aggrieved persons” authorized to bring suit under the FHA against lenders for injuries allegedly flowing from discriminatory lending practices (previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert). According to the appellate court opinion, the Court “declined to ‘draw the precise boundaries of proximate cause under the FHA and to determine on which side of the line the City’s financial injuries fall,’” leaving to the lower courts the issue of how the principles of proximate cause function when applied to the FHA and the facts of the complaints.
The appellate court concluded that the district court erred in dismissing the City’s claims against the banks in their entirety, with the 11th Circuit finding “a logical and direct bond between discriminatory lending as a pattern and practice applied to neighborhoods throughout the City and the reduction in property values.” However, the appellate court concluded that the City’s allegations fell short of establishing a direct relationship between the alleged misconduct and the City’s purported increase in its municipal services expenditures, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court “has told us that foreseeability alone is not enough.” The appellate court emphasized that at the motion to dismiss stage it was only addressing the plausibility that the alleged conduct violated the FHA, and remanded the case back to the district court.
On March 28, HUD announced that it charged a world-wide social media platform with violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by allowing advertisers to exclude certain protected classes from viewing housing-related ads. According to the charges, the social media platform collects information about its users and sells advertisers the ability to target housing-related advertisements to people who “share certain personal attributes and/or are likely to respond to a particular ad.” Specifically, HUD alleges that the platform first allows advertisers to use tools to select attributes of users who they would like to include or exclude from viewing their advertisements. These attributes include attributes such as, “women in the workforce,” “foreigners,” “Puerto Rico Islanders,” or “Christian.” HUD also alleges that the platform allows advertisers to draw a “red line” around specific areas on a map to exclude people who live there from seeing a particular ad. In a subsequent phase, HUD alleges that the platform groups users by shared attributes to create a target audience most likely to engage with the ad, even if the advertiser would prefer a broader audience, which, according to HUD, inevitably creates “groupings defined by their protected class.” HUD alleges that the data collection and targeted ad processes function “just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class” in violation of the FHA. HUD is seeking an injunction, damages for any aggrieved persons, and civil money penalties against the platform.
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