A recent $100 million verdict against Nationwide Insurance Co. in a redlining case could spark a torrent of similar suits, legal experts warn.
"Experience shows that success in this area leads to additional activity," said Allen J. Fishbein, general counsel to the Center for Community Change, a Washington activist group. "You are going to see fair- housing centers and plaintiffs' lawyers paying more attention to discrimination suits."
"This says that in a worthless redlining case you can win the lottery," one banking industry lawyer said. "So if I were a plaintiff's lawyer I'd be interested in these suits again."
The Nationwide case was brought by Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Richmond, Va., fair-housing group, which accused the insurer of discriminating against residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods in its marketing and pricing of homeowners' policies.
To make its case, HOME showed that Nationwide had intentionally moved agents out of Richmond to majority-white suburban communities. It also presented evidence that whites were twice as likely as minority group members to get insurance quotes.
Nationwide countered that it had never discriminated against minorities and that the mystery shopping tests used by HOME were flawed. "We didn't grow to the fourth-largest homeowner insurer in the country by rejecting customers," a spokesman said. "We are seeking business, and we see urban markets as growth opportunities for us."
The jury sided with the activists, awarding HOME $100.5 million, the largest award ever in a fair-housing case. A Nationwide spokesman said the company plans to appeal.
The case is unusual because most financial firms settle discrimination suits rather than risk a trial. For instance, Nationwide agreed in March 1997 to spend more than $13 million to settle similar fair-housing charges brought by the Justice Department. Also, all 13 lenders targeted by the Justice Department in fair-lending lawsuits have settled.
Francis X. Grady, a partner at the Rocky River, Ohio, law firm Grady & Associates, said he expects the insurance industry to bear the brunt of the expected legal storm.
"This is a wake-up call to the insurance industry," he said.
Banks already are subject to routine Community Reinvestment Act and fair-lending exams, he noted. However, the government has only sporadically examined insurers for compliance with the anti-discrimination laws, he said.
"Insurers are not used to people looking under their skirts," he said. "They lag the banks significantly."
Mr. Fishbein said additional suits could be especially effective against insurers because that industry is at least a decade behind mortgage lenders in compliance efforts. "Even a few successful suits can spur the industry to clean up its practices," he said.
The size of the verdict may cause financial institutions to think twice before litigating discrimination charges, said Richard T. Ritter, a former Justice Department prosecutor who now works with fair-housing groups.
"The Nationwide case in Richmond stands out and represents what can happen if lenders or issuers decide to roll the dice and leave it to the jury," Mr. Ritter said.
"If evidence of discrimination can be presented to a jury, it can have a very strong effect."
Yet Andrew L. Sandler, a partner in the Washington office of the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm, said it is unlikely that activists could win similar big judgments against other financial firms.
"The Nationwide case was unique to facts and circumstances related to that carrier," he said. "There are real questions whether similar actions against other carriers would even get to a jury."