On May 8, 2018, the United States Department of Justice and KleinBank reached a settlement agreement resolving allegations that the bank engaged in mortgage lending discrimination by failing to adequately serve predominantly minority neighborhoods (so-called "redlining") in and around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The settlement resolves one of the only redlining investigations to ever land in court, and marks the Trump DOJ's first fair lending settlement.
DOJ filed its complaint against KleinBank on January 13, 2017, one week before the inauguration of President Trump, suggesting that the Obama administration's DOJ may have been concerned that the Trump administration would be disinclined to pursue fair lending cases aggressively. Given recent activities at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this worry may have been well-founded.
The complaint alleges that, from 2010 until at least 2015, KleinBank intentionally avoided lending to residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods in the Twin Cities area because of the race or national origin of the residents of those neighborhoods. Specifically, the DOJ alleged that KleinBank carved majority-minority census tracts out of its Community Reinvestment Act assessment area, located its branch and mortgage loan officers in majority-white census tracts (and not majority-minority census tracts), and directed marketing and advertising predominantly toward residents in majority-white census tracts. While most targets of redlining claims have sought to settle the allegations in short order, KleinBank took the rare step of fighting the DOJ's claims in litigation.
Prior to the settlement, on March 30, 2018, the district court handling the case adopted a magistrate's recommendation that KleinBank's motion to dismiss be denied. The magistrate's report and recommendation are under seal, making it impossible to fully analyze the rationale underlying the decision. However, the court noted that contrary to KleinBank's contention, the government had sufficiently plead the intent element of a disparate treatment claim by, among other things, alleging that the bank intentionally drew its assessment area to avoid minority areas and intentionally avoided marketing to such areas.
Under the settlement agreement, KleinBank is required to open (and operate for at least three years) one new full-service branch office in a majority-minority census tract. Redlining resolutions that require banks to open branch offices are noteworthy considering the rapid increase in online banking activities and the cost associated with opening a full service branch.
The settlement agreement also requires KleinBank to invest $300,000 through a special purpose credit program to increase the amount of credit it extends in minority neighborhoods. Further, the bank must invest another $300,000 in advertising, outreach, financial education, and credit repair in order to "assist in establishing a presence in majority-minority census tracts in Hennepin County.
A few aspects of this agreement stand out. First, the DOJ's use of a settlement agreement rather than a consent decree is notable. Most DOJ cases are resolved using consent decrees, which are generally easier for the government to enforce. Second, many of the settlement agreement provisions are less onerous than the terms of other recent redlining settlements. For example, the agreement does not subject KleinBank to a civil money penalty, and provides for flexibility on the timing of the bank's advertising and loan subsidy obligations. This suggests that the Trump DOJ may be taking a more subdued approach to fair lending cases than did its predecessor.
Time will tell if the KleinBank settlement is a red herring or harbinger for more federal fair lending enforcement.
Originally published May 11, 2018
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