On Friday, in the CFPB v. Townstone Financial fair lending case, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed with prejudice the complaint filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), holding that the plain language of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) does not prohibit discrimination against prospective applicants.
The complaint, filed by the CFPB in July 2020, alleged that Townstone Financial, Inc., a nonbank retail-mortgage creditor and broker based in Chicago, engaged in discriminatory acts or practices in violation of ECOA, including: (1) making statements during its weekly radio shows and podcasts through which it marketed its services, that discouraged prospective African-American applicants from applying for mortgage loans; (2) discouraging prospective applicants living in African-American neighborhoods from applying for mortgage loans; and (3) discouraged prospective applicants living in other areas from applying for mortgage loans for properties located in African-American neighborhoods.
The court, in its opinion, summarized the allegations as follows: “The CFPB alleges that Townstone’s acts and practices would discourage African-American prospective applicants, as well as prospective applicants in majority- and high-African-American neighborhoods in the Chicago MSA from seeking credit.” To determine whether the CFPB’s allegation of discrimination against “prospective applicants” was permissible under ECOA, the court applied the framework set forth in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
The court found, upon applying the first step of the Chevron analysis, that “Congress has directly and unambiguously spoken on the issue at hand and [that ECOA] only prohibits discrimination against applicants” (emphasis added). In granting Townstone’s motion to dismiss, the court reasoned that the plain text of the ECOA applies to “applicants,” which the ECOA “clearly and unambiguously defines as a person who applies to a creditor for credit” – and not to “prospective applicants.” Given this, the court was not required to move on to the second step of the Chevron analysis and consider the CFPB’s interpretation of the statute. Accordingly, the CFPB’s claim under ECOA was dismissed with prejudice, as “the CFPB cannot amend its pleading in a way that would change the language of the ECOA.”
Notably, the fact that the anti-discouragement provision of Regulation B refers to “prospective applicants” was not sufficient to convince the court. Further, because the court found that ECOA unambiguously applies only to “applicants,” the court did not analyze whether the ECOA’s prohibition on “discrimination” encompasses “discouragement.” The court likewise did not reach Townstone’s argument that the CFPB is attempting to create affirmative obligations with respect to marketing and the hiring of loan officers, nor its arguments under the First and Fifth Amendments.
Ultimately, the court’s dismissal of the CFPB’s case against Townstone casts significant doubt on the agency’s ECOA discouragement theory and its approach to fair lending enforcement, particularly the agency’s redlining investigations. We expect the CFPB to appeal the court’s order, though it is possible that existing investigations based on allegations of discouragement may experience a temporary slowdown in the interim.