lawyer in his conservative brown suit, John P. Relman walked confidently into a crowded press conference last month to announce a fair-lending suit against giant NationsBank. The 38-year-old Harvard University graduate had a message for the rest of the banking industry as well. Looking straight into the cameras, he said it was time for private-sector litigators to take the lead in eradicating lending discrimination. In other words, he said, fair-lending would have to become a profitable line of work for private-sector lawyers. "The future, if civil rights enforcement is to be successful, is to have it done by the private sector," said Mr. Relman, director of the fair- housing project for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Mr. Relman said private-sector attorneys will catch on once the potential rewards are high enough. That is why the lawyers committee is constantly raising the price it charges banks for settling suits. A typical lending bias case used to cost $30,000 to settle, he said. But in resolving a dispute between a Howard University professor and First Virginia Bank last spring, the committee extracted a $200,000 settlement. He said the NationsBank case, if it doesn't go to trial, will raise the bar to record levels. The higher the settlement, the more money lawyers will make if they win. Eventually, he said, lawyers will solicit these cases just as they look for accident victims. But why fair-lending? Mr. Relman said it is an unlitigated area that was ripe for action. "We have suspected there is discrimination going on and it is an area that can affect the community dramatically," he said. Mr. Relman gets favorable reviews from the civil rights community. "The bottom line is that John is extremely well respected," said Ralph G. Neas, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and outgoing director of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. "He is a tenacious and effective fair-housing advocate." Richard Ritter, a former Justice Department prosecutor now working with the lawyers committee, said Mr. Relman views cases strategically, allowing him to pick the ones that advance the civil rights cause most. He pointed to the First Virginia settlement, which included numerous requirements that the bank better serve minorities. "That settlement struck me as reflective of John's very aggressive and forceful approach to the enforcement of the fair-lending laws, and I think reflects how John will view future fair-lending cases," he said. Not everyone loves Mr. Relman. Catherine Bessant, senior vice president at NationsBank, said she lost all respect for him after he slapped the bank with a suit on Sept. 22 without trying to settle the case beforehand. "I think it is fair to question whether their motives are justice or public relations," Ms. Bessant said. "If he was serious about getting the best possible outcome for the community, we would have had discussions long before we got to the point of the suit." Some community activists also have criticized the suit, saying NationsBank takes lending bias and community reinvestment more seriously than most institutions. Mr. Relman has dismissed those criticisms, saying the group adopted a policy of not negotiating until it files suit. Also, he said it doesn't matter if NationsBank is better than most. All that counts is that nearly a dozen people claim the bank rejected them because of their race or ethnicity. Publicity and controversy aren't new to Mr. Relman. He had been before the cameras late last year to announce that NationsBank had serious fair- lending troubles. And he has given scores of interviews on other civil rights issues during a career that has spanned the past decade and half. Mr. Relman's interest in civil rights work began when he enrolled in a Quaker junior high school after moving from Lexington, Mass., to Philadelphia. This schooling instilled a sense of fairness in him that still exists today, he says. "That left a very strong impact on me so that when I graduated, I wanted to do public interest work," he said. After graduating from high school, he went to Harvard and on to the University of Michigan law school. Most law students in the early 1980s were snapping up prestigious summer internships at major law firms, earning as much as $1,000 a week. Not Mr. Relman. He signed on with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, spending his summers in Mississippi and Alabama confronting judges hostile to the civil rights cause. "It exposed me to the realities of life of African-Americans in parts of the country that are further behind in their acceptance of the principle of equal treatment," he said. Mr. Relman isn't a zealot. He finished law school and secured two prestigious clerkships with federal judges. This is the path many of the country's top jurists have taken. He completed his judicial service in 1985, and entered a booming market for young lawyers. New York law firms had bid up salaries for starting associates to $80,000 a year as "L.A. Law" fever gripped the country. Mr. Relman turned his back on this money, choosing instead to join the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the parent of the Washington committee. He returned to the south, representing blacks who wanted to become firefighters in Jackson, Miss. He became a force for bankers to reckon with in 1989 when he replaced Kerry Alan Scanlon as director of the fair-housing project at the Washington Lawyers Committee. "He has run the program effectively and continues to bring in strong results," said Mr. Scanlon, who is now assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. Controversial battles are not new to the lawyers committees. Created by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as a public interest law firm, they have actively pursued civil rights cases across the country. Two of the Washington Lawyers Committee's more famous cases involved Holiday Spas fitness centers and Denny's restaurants. It charged that Holiday Spa discouraged minorities from joining. The company settled the case in 1992 for $9.5 million, and gave 5,000 plaintiffs free one-year memberships. The results were similar in the Denny's case; the committee secured $45 million last year to settle charges the restaurant discriminated against minority diners. Mr. Relman said his group isn't finished yet with lending bias. "NationsBank is the first, but it is only the first of what will be a good number of cases," he said. "There will be all types of cases. There will be marketing cases, pricing cases, and underwriting cases."
Save $400 off your subscription. Special offer ends April 30, 2017.
No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.
Have an account? Sign In