Reviving its fair-lending enforcement campaign, the Justice Department on Monday accused Associates National Bank of discriminating against Hispanic credit card customers.
The government said an Associates MasterCard cobranded with the Unocal petroleum company had stricter underwriting standards and came with less favorable terms when applications were filed in Spanish rather than in English.
The Justice Department also said the $482 million-asset unit of Associates First Capital Corp. illegally failed to make its skip-payment and balance consolidation offers to people who applied using Spanish forms.
"Credit card companies cannot treat applicants differently based on their national origin or ethnicity," said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. "Today's suit should put lenders on notice that they will be held accountable under the law."
Associates said the charges are unfounded and vowed to fight.
"The government's case is not supported by current law and threatens to discourage other lenders from offering outreach programs to underserved communities," said Sandra Allen, senior vice president at Associates First Capital in Irving, Tex.
Associates would be the first bank to fight the Justice Department in court over fair-lending charges. During the past five years, Justice has accused 13 banks of loan bias. All settled, most on the day the government announced the charges.
The Associates suit, filed in federal court in Wilmington, Del., may signal renewed interest by the government in bias cases. The Justice Department last brought a loan-bias case in August 1997, accusing Albank in New York State of refusing to make mortgages in predominately minority areas. In the settlement, the bank agreed to provide $55 million in loans at below-market rates.
Claiming Associates discriminated against about 1,800 Hispanic applicants, Justice is seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
According to the suit and interviews with Associates lawyers, the cobranded Unocal card was started in 1993. By 1994, the companies made a concerted effort to market to the Hispanic community by distributing literature in Spanish. It also lowered the credit score necessary to qualify and cut rates for participants in the Hispanic outreach program.
By 1996, with the Unocal program not growing as quickly as expected, the bank, then an affiliate of Ford Motor Co., cut rates and lowered underwriting standards, the lawyers said.
The bank, however, left the terms and standards unchanged for participants in the Spanish-language program. The bank also started marketing debt consolidation loans and other products to users of the cobranded card that were not offered to customers in the Hispanic outreach program.
Examiners detected possible violations of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Regulation B in 1997 and referred the case to the Justice Department in August 1998.
The bank's failure to improve terms for applicants who filled out Spanish-language forms was inadvertent and the lender acted to remedy the violation as soon as it was discovered, said Andrew L. Sandler, a partner in the Washington office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the law firm representing Associates National.
The bank cut rates for participants in the Hispanic card program and rechecked rejected applications to see if anyone would qualify under looser standards, Mr. Sandler said.
But Associates National refused to modify its marketing programs, saying the government has no right to require that all customers be sold the exact same products. Mr. Sandler noted that the bank did not offer debt consolidation and other programs to its V.I.P. customers or its employees.
"This represents a very aggressive effort by the Department of Justice to push its jurisdiction beyond that intended by Congress," Mr. Sandler said. "In this respect it is similar to the department's earlier Chevy Chase marketing case."
The 1994 Chevy Chase litigation caused an industry uproar when the government charged that the Washington-area thrift failed to market loans in minority communities. It was the first time that the government had charged a bank with violating fair-lending laws because it did not aggressively court minority business.
Mr. Sandler said the consumer credit industry should be prepared for more challenges to marketing practices. "This is the first of several cases we will see that will be aggressively litigated," he said. "We may see similar litigation over time with respect to credit scoring issues and small-business lending."