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On November 8, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a large bank for allegedly discriminating against credit card applicants of Armenian descent. According to the consent order, from at least 2015-2021, respondent allegedly engaged in discriminatory practices that involved denying credit applications and providing false reasons for denials to credit applicants based on their national origin. Respondent’s supervisors also allegedly instructed employees not to discuss these practices in writing or on recorded phone lines. Respondent will pay $1.4 million to affected consumers and a $24.5 million civil money penalty. The CFPB found that respondent violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and its implementing Regulation B by unlawfully denying credit based on national origin stereotypes, as well as the CFPA.
The FTC and the State of Wisconsin announced that they filed a complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin against an auto dealer group, and its current and former owners, and general manager, alleging that the defendants deceived consumers by tacking hundreds or even thousands of dollars in illegal junk fees onto car prices and discriminated against American Indian customers by charging them higher financing costs and fees relative to similarly situated non-Latino whites.
The complaint also notes the disparity only increased since a change of ownership in 2019. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the defendants regularly charged many of their customers junk fees for “add-on” products or services without their consent, which resulted in additional fees and interest on the customers’ loans. Further, the defendants allegedly discriminated against American Indian customers in the cost of financing by adding more “markup” to their interest rates. This additional markup cost American Indian customers, on average, $401 more compared to non-Latino white customers.
The complaint resulted in two proposed settlements. The proposed settlement with the auto dealer, its current owners, and the general manager requires the company to stop deceiving consumers about whether add-ons are required for a purchase and obtain consumers’ express informed consent before charging them for add-ons. The settlement will also the require the defendants to establish a comprehensive fair lending program that, among other components, will allow consumers to seek outside financing for a purchase and cap the additional interest markup the auto dealer can charge consumers. The current owners and general manager will also be required to pay $1 million to be used to refund affected consumers.
Separately, the former owners agreed to pay $100,000 to be used to refund affected consumers.
On September 27, the DOJ announced a $9 million settlement agreement with a Rhode Island-based community bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in a pattern or practice of lending discrimination by engaging in “redlining” in Rhode Island. The DOJ’s complaint claimed that from 2016 to at least 2021, the bank failed to provide mortgage lending services in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island. The DOJ also alleged that all of the bank’s branches were concentrated in majority-white neighborhoods, and that the bank did not take meaningful measures to compensate for not having a physical presence in majority-Black and Hispanic communities.
Under the proposed consent order, the bank will, among other things, (i) invest at least $7 million in a loan subsidy fund for majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island to increase access to credit for home mortgage, improvement, and refinance loans, and home equity loans and lines of credit; (ii) invest $1 million towards outreach, advertising, consumer financial education, and credit counseling initiatives; (iii) invest $1 million in developing community partnerships to expand access to residential mortgage credit for Black and Hispanic consumers; (iv) establish two new branches, ensure at least two mortgage loan officers, and employ a “Director of Community Lending” in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island; (v) conduct a community credit needs assessment; and (vi) produce a fair lending status report and compliance plan and conduct fair lending training. The announcement cited the bank’s cooperation with the DOJ to remedy the identified redlining concerns.
On July 26, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that a tenant screening algorithm is subject to the Fair Housing Act, including the FHA's ban on racial discrimination in housing. The court held that even though the company is not itself is not a landlord, as property owners allegedly relied solely on the company's decisions to deny prospective renters' applications, the company was effectively granting it authority to make housing decisions.
Plaintiffs alleged in an amended complaint that a tenant-screening service operated by the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604 and Massachusetts anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. The Plaintiffs claimed that the services discriminate against holders of rental vouchers and applicants of certain races and income classes, in violation of the FHA, resulting in less housing availability, less favorable terms and conditions in rental agreements, and discriminatory provision of services in connection with housing, in each case based on race and national origin.
Defendants, in their respective motions to dismiss, argued that the FHA does not apply to a tenant-screening service, such as the defendant, because the service does not “make housing decisions.” In denying the motion to dismiss on this count, the court reasoned that the FHA provisions do not limit liability to people or entities that “make housing decisions” but rather “focuses on prohibited acts,” and reiterated that the Supreme Court has already held that “language of the Act is broad and inclusive.” The court observed that while housing providers are the typical target of FHA claims, other entities are often held liable under the Act. The court reasoned that the application of the FHA “beyond direct housing providers” is a “logical extension which effectuate[s] the purpose of the FHA,” as “a housing provider could simply use an intermediary to take discriminatory and prohibited actions on its behalf and defeat the purpose of the FHA.”
Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws, among other things, make it unlawful to discriminate in the “terms, conditions, or privileges” of the sale or rental of housing or provision of such services “to aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce the doing of any of the acts forbidden under this chapter,” which includes Sections 4(6) and 4(10). Plaintiffs allege that the discriminatory rental application process was facilitated by the tenant score produced by the defendants. The court held that the chapter is construed broadly and reiterated the Massachusetts Supreme Court finding that defendants who play a role in the tenant selection process may be held liable under certain sections even if they only “aid[ed] or abet[ted]” a violation of Section 4(10). As such, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims for disparate impact discrimination for race or source of income under both FHA and Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws were sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss.
On July 21, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan denied a bank’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s allegations that she was discriminated against on the basis of race when her account was frozen due to a purported suspicious deposit. Plaintiff, an African-American woman, sued the bank claiming violations of both federal and state anti-discrimination laws after she was allegedly questioned by bank employees about the authenticity of a check she tried to deposit in the amount of $27,616, which was money she received from a legal settlement. Plaintiff claimed that the bank maintained the check was fraudulent and soon afterward froze her account and deactivated her debit card. Plaintiff further stated that her debit card remained frozen even after her attorney explained the legal settlement to the bank and her check was cleared. Claiming the bank’s treatment was racially discriminatory, plaintiff maintained that because bank “employees assumed that her ‘having money must be evidence of fraud or wrongdoing,’” she suffered financial hardships and “significant emotional and physical distress.” The bank argued that plaintiff failed to state a claim because she has not shown a connection between the bank’s actions and her race and claimed the bank employees were acting to prevent fraud.
The court disagreed, ruling that due to the bank’s alleged actions and the fact that plaintiff’s account was frozen in violation of its own policies, discriminatory intent is plausible. The court noted that “most significantly,” plaintiff’s account remained frozen for eight days after the check cleared and the possibility of fraud was discounted. The court reasoned that defendant failed to explain why its fraud-prevention policies would justify keeping an account frozen after a check has been cleared. “[A] defendant’s hostile treatment of a plaintiff can allow for an inference of discriminatory intent even if the defendant’s actions lack a direct connection to race,” the court wrote, noting that fraud prevention does not fully explain all of the bank’s actions, which “went beyond” simply conveying suspicion about a potentially fraudulent check or freezing plaintiff’s account.
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.”
On June 13, HUD announced a Charge of Discrimination against several entities and individuals accused of allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against New York City homeowners on the basis of race, color, or national origin. According to HUD, the seven complainants alleged that the respondents targeted them with offers of mortgage and foreclosure prevention assistance. Respondents allegedly filed illegitimate liens and instructed telemarketers to use “affinity marketing” to build relationships with elderly, vulnerable, and distressed homeowners by bringing up shared national origin and cultural practice. Homeowners who accepted respondents’ purported loan modification services were convinced to sign documents that unknowingly sold their homes to two entities named as respondents, HUD said, explaining that respondents would then attempt to force homeowners to vacate their homes. These efforts were disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods with a high majority of persons of color (specifically persons of Black and Caribbean descent), HUD noted, adding that in order to persuade lenders to approve the short sale, some of the respondents would allegedly create private real estate listings for homeowners’ properties and present them to the bank as public listings, while falsely claiming no offers had been received in order to secure minimal sales prices. Homeowners were also allegedly promised that the short sales were part of the loan modification services and that the property would be transferred back into their names or that of a family member after a certain period, and that they would be able to remain in their homes until the title was returned. In fact, however, respondents intended to flip the properties for profit.
The charge will be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge unless a party elects to have the case heard in federal district court. HUD requested that the respondents be enjoined from continuing to discriminate against any person because of race, color, or national origin, and asked for damages to fully compensate the complainants, as well as the maximum civil penalty for each respondent.
On April 25, the CFPB, DOJ, FTC, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to protect the public from bias in automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI). “America’s commitment to the core principles of fairness, equality, and justice are deeply embedded in the federal laws that our agencies enforce to protect civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection, and equal opportunity,” the agencies said, emphasizing that existing authorities apply equally to the use of new technologies and responsible innovation as they do to any other conduct. The agencies have previously expressed concerns about potentially harmful AI applications, including black box algorithms, algorithmic marketing and advertising, abusive AI technology usage, digital redlining, and repeat offenders’ use of AI, which may contribute to unlawful discrimination, biases, and violate consumers’ rights.
“We already see how AI tools can turbocharge fraud and automate discrimination, and we won’t hesitate to use the full scope of our legal authorities to protect Americans from these threats,” FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said. “Technological advances can deliver critical innovation—but claims of innovation must not be cover for lawbreaking. There is no AI exemption to the laws on the books, and the FTC will vigorously enforce the law to combat unfair or deceptive practices or unfair methods of competition,” Khan added.
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra echoed Khan’s sentiments and said the Bureau, along with other agencies, are taking measures to address unchecked AI. “While machines crunching numbers might seem capable of taking human bias out of the equation, that’s not what is happening,” Chopra said. “When consumers and regulators do not know how decisions are made by artificial intelligence, consumers are unable to participate in a fair and competitive market free from bias,” Chopra added. The Director’s statements concluded by noting that the Bureau will continue to collaborate with other agencies to enforce federal consumer financial protection laws, regardless of whether the violations occur through traditional means or advanced technologies.
Additionally, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division noted that “[a]s social media platforms, banks, landlords, employers and other businesses  choose to rely on artificial intelligence, algorithms and other data tools to automate decision-making and to conduct business, we stand ready to hold accountable those entities that fail to address the discriminatory outcomes that too often result.”
On April 14, the CFPB filed a statement of interest saying ECOA’s prohibition on discrimination applies “to any aspect of a credit transaction,” and therefore covers every aspect of a borrower’s dealings with a creditor, not just specific loans terms such as the interest rate or fees.
The case, which is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, concerns a putative class of Black students enrolled at a for-profit nursing school who took out credit in the form of federal and private student loans to pay for the program. Plaintiffs alleged that the school adopted new policies while they were enrolled that increased the time and money it would take to complete the program, and asserted the program was intentionally targeted to individuals on the basis of race “with the understanding that they were highly likely to require an extension of credit to pay for the program.” Plaintiffs claimed the school violated ECOA by engaging in “reverse redlining” and brought other claims under state and federal law. The school moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to specify any aspect of any credit transaction that is discriminatory based on race or another protected class under ECOA, and failed to identify any specific loan term that was unfair or predatory (based on race or otherwise), the Bureau said in a corresponding blog post.
The statement of interest addressed two questions concerning ECOA’s applicability raised in the school’s motion to dismiss. First, the Bureau refuted the school’s argument that in order to state a claim for discriminatory targeting under ECOA, the plaintiff must allege that the individual (i) is a member of a protected class; (ii) applied and qualified for a loan; (iii) the loan was made on “grossly unfavorable terms”; and (iv) the lender intentionally targeted the plaintiff for unfair loans or gave more favorable terms to others. Calling this contention “mistaken,” the Bureau explained that to state a claim under ECOA, “a plaintiff need allege only facts to plausibly suggest that a defendant discriminated on a prohibited basis with respect to an aspect of a credit transaction; they need not allege the elements of a prima facie case, which is an evidentiary standard and not a pleading requirement.” The Bureau pointed to allegations showing that the school allegedly targeted Black students by, among other things, engaging in race-targeted advertising and marketing, enrolling a disproportionate number of Black students as compared to the surrounding neighborhoods’ populations, and making a greater percentage of loans in majority Black census tracts, as examples of discriminatory targeting.
Second, the Bureau disagreed with the school’s assertion that plaintiffs failed to identify any aspects of the credit transactions that were discriminatory based on race, or any specific loans terms that were allegedly unfair or predatory. Emphasizing that even if the loan terms are not themselves unfair or predatory, plaintiffs may proceed with a discriminatory targeting claim because ECOA prohibits discrimination “with respect to any aspect of a credit transaction,” which encompasses more than just the loan terms in a contract, the Bureau explained. According to the Bureau, the plaintiffs alleged discrimination in relation to multiple aspects of their credit transactions with the school and have accordingly stated a claim under ECOA.
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra issued a statement emphasizing that courts have consistently upheld that discriminatory targeting violates ECOA when a company targets consumers on a prohibited basis for harmful and predatory loans. The Bureau will continue to work with the DOJ, federal agencies, and the states to ensure lenders that engage in discriminatory targeting are held accountable, Chopra said.
On March 30, acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu commented that the safety and soundness of the federal banking system continues to be a top agency priority, as is improving fairness in banking. Speaking at a conference, Hsu discussed several measures taken by the OCC to elevate and advance fairness, particularly for the underserved and financially vulnerable. Explaining that OCC examiners are encouraging bank management to review existing overdraft protection programs and consider adopting pro-consumer reforms, Hsu referred to CFPB guidance issued last October to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices associated with “so-called ‘surprise overdraft’ fees.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) He also commented that both the Federal Reserve Board and the FDIC have cited the risk of violating UDAP in connection with the certain overdraft practices. Hsu noted that not all overdraft practices are equal, stating that “authorize positive, settle negative” and “representment” fees both present heightened risks.
Recognizing the recent decline in banks’ reliance on overdraft fees, Hsu emphasized that most bankers he has spoken to “understand the importance of treating their customers fairly and have been open to learning about best practices.” He noted that “[t]hese bankers are committed to being there for their customers and providing them with short-term, small dollar liquidity when it is needed most. Many customers tell their banks, as well as groups that have studied overdraft practices, that this banking service helps them meet payments when they come due.” Hsu added that the OCC’s intended goal is to “improve the fairness of these programs by making them more pro-consumer, not to eliminate them,” and that “[m]ore fairness means more financially healthy communities, which means more trust in banking.” Hsu also discussed efforts taken by the OCC to combat discriminatory lending practices, including working to enhance supervisory methods for identifying appraisal discrimination.