Miami Lawsuit Against Banks May Redefine Scope of Fair Housing Act

The City of Miami recently brought an action against multiple lenders claiming their practices were discriminatory and in violation of the Fair Housing Act. On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Wells Fargo’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Wells Fargo & Co. and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. The City of Miami as well as Bank of America’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Bank of America Corp., et al. v. City of Miami and consolidated the two cases. A final decision on the case will most likely define the reach of the Fair Housing Act.

The City of Miami alleges that the banks’ conduct violated the Fair Housing Act in two ways. First, that it intentionally discriminated against minority borrowers and second, that its conduct had a disparate impact, resulting in an unbalanced number of foreclosures on minority-owned properties. This allegedly caused financial harm that included an increase in municipal costs and a decrease in tax revenue. The City of Miami sought an injunction, barring the lenders from engaging in similar conduct and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees. The banks moved to dismiss, most notably stating the city lacked statutory standing to sue under the FHA as the claim fell outside the act’s “zone of interest.” The city failed to plead that the banks’ actions were the immediate cause of the alleged damages. The motion was granted by the district court. The city then moved in the district court for reconsideration and for leave to file an amended complaint, which the district court denied. The city chose to appeal.

Upon review the appellate court held that the banks’ “discriminatory lending practices caused minority-owned properties to fall into foreclosure,” which in turn caused the avalanche of revenue loss to the city and tacked on the cost of fighting blight resulting from the foreclosed-upon properties. “We have little difficulty in finding,” the appellate court ruled, “that the City has said enough to allege an injury in fact for constitutional standing purposes.”

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