WASHINGTON - In what would be the first case of its kind, the Justice Department is reviewing whether a national bank violated fair-lending laws by treating married and unmarried couples differently.

The department is determining if it should investigate the bank for aggregating the debts and incomes of married couples while treating the finances of unmarried couples separately, according to a report from the Comptroller of the Currency. The bank's policy, the OCC said, made it harder for unwed couples to qualify for credit.

The Comptroller's office disclosed the probe Wednesday in an advisory letter to banks detailing 20 cases the agency has referred to the Justice Department since April 1993.

The OCC letter did not identify the banks, and Justice Department officials declined to comment.

The department returned six similar referrals to the agency for administrative action. Banking industry lawyers said they don't expect marital status to become a major fair-lending issue.

"Every now and again we find there is some confusion about what that rule is," said James McLaughlin, director of regulatory affairs at the American Bankers Association. "But I think we got it pretty cleared up right now."

The Comptroller's office referred six national banks for alleged racial bias, four for age discrimination, and three unrelated cases. The banking agency resolved 14 of the cases administratively, the Fed took care of one case, and the Justice Department settled two others. Three cases are pending before the Justice Department or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Comptroller's office said.

All the cases alleged intentional discrimination rather than disparate impact, which arises when a bank's policies put a particular group at a disadvantage.

Mr. McLaughlin said several cases involved technical violations. For example, two banks were referred because they offered senior citizen discounts to customers 55 and over. Equal credit laws limit these discounts to people over 62.

"The number of referrals over a two-and-a-half year period suggests what a lot of people have suspected for a long time," said Steve Zeisel, senior counsel at the Consumer Bankers Association. "There doesn't appear to be very much intentional discrimination out there despite a very stepped-up and intense fair-lending examination process."

The OCC report provides details about several cases. One referral involved a bank president who violated the Fair Housing Act by making "blatantly discriminatory comments" about the creditworthiness of minority borrowers. Another bank was referred because it imposed lower credit card debt limits on customers under age 25.

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