After clearing all the necessary regulatory hurdles, the Chase-Chemical merger has now landed in court.

A Chemical Banking Corp. spokesman dismissed the challenges filed last Friday in federal and New York State courts as "without merit." But whatever their merits, the lawsuits filed by the Bronx community group Inner City Press/Community on the Move could slow the merger.

"I'm not convinced that Inner City actually thinks it will win, but it can win by losing in the sense that it sends a message," said Warren Traiger, a New York attorney who advises banks in Community Reinvestment Act matters.

That message, Mr. Traiger said, is: "If you don't settle with us early, not only are we going to make the regulatory process as painful as we can, we are going to drag you into the courts."

Not so, retorted Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press. "We didn't bring this to be a pest to Chase and Chemical," he said. "We think we should, and might, win."

In its suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Inner City Press contends that the Federal Reserve Board's Jan. 5 approval of the Chase-Chemical merger relied on "flawed" assessments of Chase's community reinvestment record by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Inner City Press also charges that the Fed's analysis of the merger's antitrust implications was inadequate.

Meanwhile, in a suit filed Friday in New York Supreme Court, the state's trial court, the group claims that the New York State Banking Board failed to comply with open meetings laws in its Jan. 11 approval of the merger.

John Stefans, a spokesman for Chemical, said the banks are confident the approvals will hold up. "Such regulatory decisions are accorded great deference by the courts," he said.

State Supreme Court Judge Paula J. Omansky may already have caused the banks at least a slight headache.

She decided against any immediate action on the case, explaining that she has until March 31, when the merger is scheduled to be completed, to issue a ruling.

Chemical chairman Walter V. Shipley, however, had been hinting lately that he wanted to finish the merger sooner.

Inner City Press has two similar cases pending in federal court - one involving Chase Manhattan Corp.'s acquisition of the securities processing business of U.S. Trust Co. of New York and the other dealing with GreenPoint Financial Corp.'s purchase of H.F. Ahmanson & Co.'s New York branches.

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