Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

August 7, 2013

Racial Discrimination in the Secondary Mortgage Market

By David Reiss

Judge Baer issued an opinion in Adkins et al. v. Morgan Stanley et al., No 1:12-cv-07667 (July 25, 2013), denying Morgan Stanley’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff-homeowners’ Fair Housing Act claims. The homeowners claimed “that Morgan Stanley’s policies and practices caused New Century Mortgage Company to target borrowers in the Detroit, Michigan region for loans that had a disparate impact upon African-Americans” in violation of the FHA. (1)

The Court found that the plaintiffs met their pleading burden sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss:

First, they have identified the policy that they allege has a disproportionate impact on minorities.  That policy consisted of Morgan Stanley

(1) routinely purchasing both stated income loans and loans with unreasonably high debt-to-income ratios,

(2) routinely purchasing loans with unreasonably high loan-to-value ratios,

(3) requiring that New Century’s loans include adjustable rates and prepayment penalties as well as purchasing loans with other high-risk features,

(4) providing necessary funding to New Century, and

(5) purchasing loans that deviated from basic underwriting standards.

Plaintiffs go on to state that these policies resulted in “New Century aggressively target[ing] African-American borrowers and communities . . . for the Combined-Risk Loans.”  (Compl. ¶ 81.) Indeed, Plaintiffs allege in detail the effect that New Century’s lending had upon the African-American community in the Detroit area. (Compl. ¶¶ 115–122).  That lending, according to Plaintiffs, was a direct result of Morgan Stanley’s policies.  And while Plaintiffs do not allege that they qualified for better loans, they allege discrimination based only upon the receipt of these predatory, toxic loans that placed them at high financial risk.  These risks exist regardless of Plaintiffs’ qualifications.  On a motion to dismiss, these allegations are sufficient to demonstrate a disparate impact. (11)

The opinion goes farther afield than the questions presented at points. For instance, Judge Baer writes,

Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing only emphasizes the broader consequences of predatory lending and the foreclosures that inevitably result.  Indeed, “[b]y 2012, banks had foreclosed on 100,000 homes [in Detroit], which drove down the city’s total real estate value by 30 percent and spurred a mass exodus of nearly a quarter million people.”  Laura Gottesdiener, Detroit’s Debt Crisis:  Everything Must Go, Rolling Stone, June 20, 2013.  The resulting blight stemming from “60,000 parcels of vacant land” and “78,000 vacant structures, of which 38,000 are estimated to be in potentially dangerous condition” has further strained Detroit’s already taxed resources.  Kevyn D. Orr, Financial and Operating Plan 9 (2013).  And as residents flee the city, Detroit’s shrinking ratepayer base renders its financial outlook even bleaker.  Id.  Given these conditions, it is not difficult to conclude that Detroit’s current predicament, at least in part, is an outgrowth of the predatory lending at issue here.  See Monica Davey & Mary Williams Walsh, Billions in Debt, Detroit Tumbles Into Insolvency, N.Y. Times, July 18, 2013, at A1 (listing Detroit’s “shrunken tax base but still a huge, 139-square-mile city to maintain” as one factor contributing to the city’s financial woes). (3-4)

This kind of judicial history does not seem to speak to the legal issue at hand and may negatively impact its reception on appeal. Furthermore, all Fair Housing Act cases will be impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. for which it has recently granted cert. In that case, the Supreme Court will decide whether disparate impact is a cognizable claim under the Fair Housing Act.

But, whatever happens in the future, Adkins proceeds apace for now.

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