High Court: Cities Can Sue Banks Using Fair Housing Act

May 2, 2017

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that cities can sue banks over housing discrimination they claim led to urban blight in their communities. However, cities will face a high standard proving it to courts.

Several cities nationwide have sued major lenders under the federal Fair Housing Act, arguing that banks need to be held accountable for harming their communities. In its ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court justices agreed that not just individuals but also cities can sue under the Fair Housing Act.

But it wasn’t a total win for the cities that have sued banks under federal antidiscrimination laws. The justices said that a lower court had incorrectly allowed a lawsuit by Miami against Wells Fargo and Bank of America to move forward without more proof that the banks’ practices had, indeed, harmed the city by reducing the amount of property taxes it received. Miami, similar to other cities, had been trying to hold banks accountable under the Fair Housing Act for a spike in foreclosures during the housing crisis a decade ago. The city officials alleged that the banks targeted African-American and Hispanic borrowers for more costly and riskier loans than offered to their white counterparts. Many of these loans to minority homeowners fell into default.

In writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that a city can make a claim for financial harm under the antidiscrimination housing law. However, he said tying the loans to the drop in tax revenues is more difficult and there must be “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged.” An appeals court will now be left to decide that issue in the case.

Still, both sides are viewing Monday’s ruling as a win, in some aspects.

“With this decision, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the crucial role of municipal governments in protecting residents’ rights,” notes Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program. “In housing and lending as in other areas, cities can and should serve as a bulwark against discrimination.”

Meanwhile, a Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank’s case was aided by the court’s decision on Monday. “We believe that under the stringent standards articulated by the Supreme Court, it will be difficult for Miami or any other municipality to show the required connection between the claimed damages and unsubstantiated allegations about our lending practices, which do not reflect how we operate in the communities we serve,” says Tom Goyda, Wells Fargo senior vice president.

Source: “Supreme Court Says Cities Can Sue Banks Under Anti-Bias Law,” Associated Press (May 1, 2017) and “Supreme Court Says Cities Can Sue Big Banks Over Housing Bubble Damages,” The Washington Post (May 1, 2017)