Alston & Bird Consumer Finance Blog

Department of Justice

Affirmative Action in Lending: The Implications of the Harvard Decision on Financial Institutions

Early this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellow of Harvard College effectively ended race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities across the country. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that decisions made “on the basis of race” do nothing more than further “stereotypes that treat individuals as the product of their race, evaluating their thoughts and efforts—their very worth as citizens—according to a criterion barred to the Government by history and the Constitution.”

In particular, the Supreme Court reasoned that “when a university admits students ‘on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike.’” Such stereotyping purportedly only causes “continued hurt and injury,” contrary as it is to the “core purpose” of the Equal Protection Clause. Ultimately, the Supreme Court reminded us that “ameliorating societal discrimination does not constitute a compelling interest that justifies race-based state action.”

In the context of lending, federal regulatory agencies expect and encourage financial institutions to explicitly consider race in their lending activities. While the Community Reinvestment Act has required banks to affirmatively consider the needs of low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods, regulatory enforcement actions over the last few years have required both bank and nonbank mortgage lenders to explicitly consider an applicant’s protected characteristics such as race and ethnicity—conduct plainly prohibited by fair lending laws.

Could the impact of the Supreme Court holding extend beyond education to lending and housing? Will the Harvard decision serve to undercut federal regulators’ legal theories for demonstrating redlining and present a challenge for special purpose credit programs that explicitly consider race or other protected characteristics?

Fair Lending Laws Prohibit Consideration of Race

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits a creditor from discriminating against any applicant, in any aspect of a credit transaction, on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or marital status, or age (provided the applicant has the capacity to contract). Similarly, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against any person in making available a residential real-estate-related transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

In March 2022, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) went as far as to update its Examination Manual to provide that unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices (UDAAPs) “include discrimination” and signaled that the CFPB will examine whether companies are adequately “testing for” discrimination in their advertising, pricing, and other activities. When challenged by various trade organizations, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled that the CFPB’s update exceeded the agency’s authority under the Dodd–Frank Act. This decision is limited, however, and enjoins the CFPB from pursuing its theory against those financial institutions that are members of the trade association plaintiffs. It is also unclear if the verdict will be appealed by the CFPB.

Despite federal prohibitions, regulators such as the CFPB and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) expect, and at times even require, lenders to affirmatively target their marketing and lending efforts to certain borrowers and communities based on race and/or ethnicity.

Race-Based Decisions Are Encouraged and Even Required by Regulators

CFPB examiners often ask lenders to describe their affirmative, specialized efforts to target their lending to minority communities. If there have been no such explicit efforts by the institution, the CFPB penalizes these lenders for not explicitly considering race in their marketing and lending decisions. For example, in the CFPB’s redlining complaint against Townstone Financial, the CFPB alleged that “Townstone made no effort to market directly to African-Americans during the relevant period,” and that “Townstone has not specifically targeted any marketing toward African-Americans.”

What’s more, if enforcement culminates in a consent order, the CFPB and DOJ effectively impose race- based action by requiring lenders to fund loan subsidies or discounts that will be offered exclusively to consumers based on the predominant race or ethnicity of their neighborhood. In the CFPB/DOJ settlement with nonbank Trident Mortgage, the lender was required to set aside over $18 million toward offering residents of majority-minority neighborhoods “home mortgage loans on a more affordable basis than otherwise available.”

And in the more recent DOJ settlement with Washington Trust, the consent order required the lender to subsidize only those mortgage loans made to “qualified applicants,” defined in the settlement as consumers who either reside, or apply for a mortgage for a residential property located, in a majority-Black and Hispanic census tract. Such subsidies are a common feature of recent redlining settlements, which have been occurring with increased frequency since the DOJ announced its Combating Redlining Initiative in October 2021.

Not only do the CFPB and DOJ encourage, and in certain cases, even require, race-based lending in potential contravention of fair lending laws, but federal regulators also expect some degree of race-based hiring by lenders. This expectation is based on the stereotypical assumption that lenders need racial and ethnic minorities in their consumer-facing workforce to attract racial and ethnic minority loan applicants. In the Townstone complaint, for example, the CFPB chastised the lender for failing to “employ an African-American loan officer during the relevant period, even though it was aware that hiring a loan officer from a particular racial or ethnic group could increase the number of applications from members of that racial or ethnic group.”

Ultimately, all the recent redlining consent orders announced by the CFPB and DOJ impose at least some race-based requirement, which would seem to run afoul of fair lending laws and Supreme Court precedent.

Racial Quota-Based Metrics Used by Regulators

Further, when assessing whether a lender may have engaged in redlining against a particular racial or ethnic group, the CFPB and DOJ, as a matter of course, employ quota-based metrics to evaluate the “rates” or “percentages” of a lender’s activity in majority-minority geographic areas, specifically majority-minority census tracts (MMCTs). Then the regulators compare such rates or percentages of the lender’s loan applications or originations in MMCTs to those of other lenders. For example, in its complaint against Lakeland Bank, the DOJ focused on the alleged “disparity between the rate of applications generated by Lakeland and the rate generated by its peer lenders from majority-Black and Hispanic areas.” The agency criticized the bank’s “shortfalls in applications from individuals identifying as Black or Hispanic compared to the local demographics and aggregate HMDA averages.”

Undoubtedly, this approach utilizes nothing more than a quota-based metric, which the Supreme Court in Harvard squarely rejected. Indeed, the Supreme Court reasoned that race-based programs amount to little more than determining how “the breakdown of the [incoming] class compares to the prior year in terms of racial identities,” or comparing the racial makeup of the incoming class to the general population, to see whether some proportional goal or benchmark has been reached.

While the goal of meaningful representation and diversity is commendable, the Supreme Court emphasized that “outright racial balancing and quota systems remain patently unconstitutional.” And such a focus on racial quotas means that lenders could attempt to minimize or even eliminate their fair lending risk simply by decreasing their lending in majority-non-Hispanic-White neighborhoods—without ever increasing their loan applications or originations in majority-minority neighborhoods. Of course, this frustrates the essential purpose of ECOA and other fair lending laws.

Potential Constitutional Scrutiny of Race-Based Lending Efforts

If race-based state action, including the use of racial quotas, violates the Equal Protection Clause, it is possible that the race-based lending measures recently encouraged and even required by federal regulators may be constitutionally problematic. In addition to racially targeted loan subsidies and racially motivated loan officer hiring, regulators continue to encourage lenders to implement special purpose credit programs (SPCPs) to meet the credit needs of specific racial or ethnic groups. As the CFPB noted in its advisory opinion, “[b]y permitting the consideration of a prohibited basis such as race, national origin, or sex in connection with a special purpose credit program, Congress protected a broad array of programs ‘specifically designed to prefer members of economically disadvantaged classes’ and ‘to increase access to the credit market by persons previously foreclosed from it.’”

While SPCPs are explicitly permitted by the language of ECOA and its implementing regulation, Regulation B, as an exception to the statute’s mandate against considering a credit applicant’s protected characteristics, it is uncertain whether these provisions, if challenged, would survive constitutional scrutiny by the current Supreme Court.

Takeaways for Lenders

For the time being, lenders that offer SPCPs based on a protected characteristic should ensure that their written plans continue to meet the requirements of Section 1002.8(a)(3). As always, the justifications for lending decisions that could disproportionately affect consumers based on their race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristic should be well documented and justified by legitimate business needs. And if faced with a fair lending investigation or potential enforcement action, lenders should consider presenting to regulators any alternate data findings or conclusions that demonstrate the institution’s record of lending in MMCTs rather than focusing on the rates or percentages of other lenders in the geographic area.

As Economic Winds Blow, So Do Whistleblowers: How to Protect Your Company Through Turbulent Times

A&B ABstract:

As recently reported by the Financial Times, banks are preparing for the “deepest job cuts since the financial crisis,” with firings to be “super brutal.” Already, nonbank lenders and service providers have been suffering with several rounds of layoffs and, potentially, more to come. Former employees, particularly disgruntled ones, may have information they want to share with the government.  An Insider article highlighted that remote work has resulted in a surge of whistleblower complaints.  If true, even current employees, including those whose complaints or grievances fall on deaf ears, also could be potential whistleblowers.

Alston & Bird Partners Nanci Weissgold, Joey Burby, and Cara Peterman (ably assisted by, and a special thanks to, Charlotte BohnAndrew Brown, and Melissa Malpass) addressed today’s challenging economic conditions, and how companies can protect themselves during an expected surge in whistleblowing by disgruntled current and former employees.  The webinar slides address:

  • What you need to know about government whistleblower reward programs and laws with whistleblower incentives and protections, including the False Claims Act, FIRREA, and the SEC’s Whistleblower program.
  • Recent trends, developments, major settlements, and awards in whistleblower-related settlements and litigation.
  • Best practices for companies when responding to, de-escalating, and defending against whistleblower complaints.

Best Practices for Responding to Whistleblower Complaints

#1: Keep complaints internal. It is critical to have procedures in place for employees (as well as contractors and other agents) to report compliance concerns internally.

  • Establish a compliance hotline or other means of anonymous
  • Have an anti-retaliation policy to protect employees who make a report.
  • Promote these policies and procedures, and train employees on them.

This is a required element of an effective compliance program under DOJ and SEC guidance, and factors into their charging decisions; also considered under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines in determining corporate penalties.

Additionally, internal complaints allow companies to investigate and remediate (if necessary) and to consider whether/how to self-disclose. The 2023 revisions to DOJ’s Corporate Enforcement Policy strongly encourage self-disclosure, offering significant incentives to companies who do.

#2: Maintain a strong Compliance Management System (CMS). A strong CMS is one that establishes compliance responsibilities, communicates those responsibilities to employees, ensures the responsibilities are carried out and met, takes corrective action, and updates tools, systems, and processes as needed.

Scaled to the size of the company’s operations, a CMS requires:

  • A strong board of directors and management oversight – “tone at the top.”
  • Comprehensive written policies and procedures to demonstrate an understanding of all applicable laws and regulations.
  • Training of all applicable laws to ensure that employees can perform their functions.
  • Monitoring and testing based on an assessment of risk carried out through three lines of defense:
    (1) functions that own and manage risk; (2) functions that oversee risk; and (3) functions that provide independent assurance.
  • Timely corrective action that remediates past issues and prevents reoccurrence prospectively.
  • Consumer complaint response, root cause analysis, and enterprise-wide action.

#3:  Time is of the essence. Whether you learn of a whistleblower complaint internally, or via contact from a government agency, you should initiate an internal investigation into the subject matter of the complaint immediately. DOJ takes the immediacy of self-disclosure into account in determining whether to file charges. If there is ongoing problematic conduct, you want to stop it and cut off potential liability.

  • What the investigation will involve, and how it will be conducted, will vary depending on the seriousness of the complaint and how credible it appears.
  • Inside or outside counsel should generally conduct the investigation to ensure communications and work product are protected by the attorney-client privilege.
  • Some basic steps are common to almost every internal investigation:
    • Ensure that all potentially relevant documents (including emails and IMs) are preserved.
    • Collect and review relevant documents.
    • Interview involved employees (using Upjohn warning).

Takeaway

Given that a surge in whistleblower complaints is likely, financial institutions should ensure that they are adequately prepared to address them.

Is the DOJ (De Facto) Enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act?

A&B Abstract:

Furthering the Justice Department’s Combating Redlining Initiative, the Department of Justice has announced another redlining settlement.  But this settlement is different – this one involves a bank that has received top marks by its prudential regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for its compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a statute enacted to reduce redlining, for the same years that the DOJ alleged the bank engaged in redlining.

The DOJ’s Allegations

Lakeland Bank is a northern New Jersey-based, state chartered bank with more than $10 billion in assets.  The DOJ alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)/Regulation B, and specifically “that Lakeland engaged in illegal redlining by avoiding providing home loans and other mortgage services, and engaged in discrimination and conduct that would discourage mortgage applications from prospective applicants who are residents of or seeking credit in majority Black and Hispanic census tracts” located in its northern New Jersey assessment area.  In entering the more than $13 million settlement, the Bank did not admit to any of the DOJ’s allegations.  It agreed to various requirements to strengthen its fair lending compliance program, including investing in a loan subsidy fund, opening additional branches, and expanding its CRA assessment area.

The FDIC’s Findings

What is curious, however, is that in its latest CRA performance evaluation, the FDIC determined that Lakeland “exhibits a good record of serving the credit needs of the most economically disadvantaged areas of its assessment area, low-income individuals, and/or very small businesses, consistent with safe and sound banking practices.”  It determined that there is in fact strong competition for lending in the area, but that the bank nonetheless showed good penetration to borrowers of low- and moderate-income levels and in low- and moderate-income areas.  Further, the FDIC determined that the bank “makes extensive use of innovative and/or flexible lending practices in order to serve assessment area credit needs,” noting that the bank’s programs provide lower down payments, lower interest rates, down payment assistance, first-time homebuyer programs, and unsecured small dollar loan programs, for lower-income individuals and small businesses.  The FDIC also called Lakeland “a leader in making community development loans.”  In fact, Lakeland received a rating of “Outstanding,” the highest rating which only a small number of banks achieve, in each of its CRA exams for more than a decade.

CRA versus Fair Lending Laws

The rub is that the CRA is not a fair lending statute, as it focuses on income disparity and not racial disparity, though it often goes hand in glove with the fair lending laws.  For example, a failure to comply with fair lending laws (e.g., the Fair Housing Act, ECOA/Regulation B) can result in a downgrade of a bank’s CRA rating, despite its satisfactory or better performance in its CRA evaluation.  The CRA is enforced by the OCC, FDIC, and Federal Reserve Board.  The fair lending laws are typically enforced by the OCC, FDIC, Federal Reserve, CFPB, NCUA, FTC, and HUD (along with state regulators).  The threshold for an agency’s referral to DOJ for enforcement proceedings is low, requiring reason to believe there is a pattern or practice of discrimination.

Takeaway

In practice, the Lakeland settlement shows how a bank can be susceptible to fair lending risk with respect to redlining, and yet still pass its (anti-redlining) CRA examination with flying colors.  Maybe that is a reason to revise the CRA regulations (spoiler alert: that’s already in the works).  Or maybe it is a reminder to banks to mind the forest and the trees.  Focusing on CRA is necessary but not sufficient, and a bank needs to ensure it is regularly monitoring its lending activity for potential redlining.

CFPB and DOJ Announce Redlining Settlement Against Non-Bank Mortgage Lender

A&B Abstract:

On July 27, 2022, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) and the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) entered into a settlement with Trident Mortgage Company (“Trident”), resolving allegations under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) and the Fair Housing Act that the non-bank mortgage lender intentionally discriminated against majority-minority neighborhoods in the greater Philadelphia area. This settlement is the first redlining enforcement action against a non-bank mortgage lender and evidences the government’s continued focus on “modern-day redlining.”

The Settlement Terms

The Trident settlement, which requires the lender to pay over $22 million, resolves allegations that Trident, through its marketing, sales, and hiring actions, “discouraged” prospective applicants in the greater Philadelphia area’s majority-minority neighborhoods from applying for mortgage and refinance loans. However, much like the CFPB’s lawsuit against Townstone Financial, Inc. (“Townstone”), the settlement does not indicate that Trident treated neighborhoods or applicants differently based on race or ethnicity. Instead, the crux of the settlement is that Trident did not take sufficient affirmative action to target majority-minority neighborhoods. This, coupled with Trident’s mortgage lending reporting under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (“HMDA”), ultimately subjected the lender to enforcement.

Specifically, the CFPB’s press release notes that: (1) only 12% of Trident’s mortgage loan applications came from majority-minority neighborhoods, even though “more than a quarter” of neighborhoods in the Philadelphia MSA are majority-minority; (2) 51 out of Trident’s 53 offices in the Philadelphia area were located in majority-white neighborhoods; and (3) all models displayed in Trident’s direct mail marketing campaigns “appeared to be white;” (4) Trident’s open house flyers were “overwhelmingly concentrated” in majority-white neighborhoods; and (5) Trident’s online advertisements appeared to be for home listings “overwhelmingly located” in majority-white neighborhoods.

Similar to the Townstone lawsuit, the settlement does not indicate that Trident explicitly excluded certain neighborhoods or prospective applicants or actually discouraged applicants from majority-minority neighborhoods, only that such applicants “would have been discouraged.” While both the Townstone lawsuit and the Trident settlement reference remarks made by employees in their internal communications, there is no indication that employees ever made offensive or discouraging statements to prospective applicants of any neighborhood. Nevertheless, the CFPB settlement requires Trident to pay $18.4 million into a loan subsidy program to increase the credit extended in majority-minority neighborhoods in the Philadelphia MSA; $4 million in civil money penalties; $875,000 toward advertising in majority-minority neighborhoods in the Philadelphia MSA; $750,000 toward partnerships with community-based organizations; and $375,000 toward consumer financial education. The settlement also requires Trident to open and maintain four (4) branch offices in majority-minority neighborhoods of the MSA.

Takeaways

The Trident settlement is noteworthy for various reasons. In addition to being the first government redlining settlement with a non-bank mortgage lender, the resolution involves a variety of parties, including the CFPB, DOJ, and the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Further, the settlement once again highlights that insufficient marketing and outreach in minority neighborhoods may be considered sufficient  actionable under ECOA and the Fair Housing Act. Indeed, it appears that a lender’s failure to precisely align its lending patterns with the geography’s demographics may serve as the basis of a redlining claim, even absent specific allegations of intentional exclusion or other discrimination. Finally, the settlement demonstrates that even a lender no longer in operation (Trident stopped accepting loan applications in 2021) is still a worthy defendant in the government’s eyes.

Department of Justice Announces New Civil Fraud Cybersecurity Enforcement Team

On October 6, 2021, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco announced the launch of the Department of Justice’s Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative.  As Kellen Dwyer, Kim Peretti ,and Jon Knight report on the Privacy, Cyber & Data Strategy Blog, the Department plans to use civil enforcement tools to “pursue…those who are government contractors who receive federal funds, when they fail to follow required cybersecurity standards.”