Roslyn Bancorp agreed Tuesday to spend $3 million to resolve lending bias charges brought by the New York State Banking Department.
The settlement marks the first time a state banking department has brought a fair-lending suit without involving the Department of Justice and signals an escalation in the campaign to stamp out lending bias.
"This is a message to the lending community that we will treat lending discrimination very seriously when we find it," said Elizabeth McCaul, acting New York superintendent of banks. "This settlement agreement can serve as a model for other states that wish to settle fair-lending cases on their own."
Indeed, observers said they expect more states to pursue fair-lending claims.
"We are entering a new era of enforcement," said Warren Traiger, a principal at the New York law firm of Butler, Fitzgerald & Potter. "It is no longer just the Department of Justice acting on its own or on referrals from the federal agencies. Now you have the states involved, and the more investigators you have out there, the more likely you are to have enforcement actions."
New York banking regulators also are investigating at least three mortgage companies for charging minorities higher loan rates and fees than whites. Sources said those probes are in their early stages. The mortgage companies could not be identified.
In the Roslyn case, chairman Joseph L. Mancino declined to comment but issued a statement denying any wrongdoing and explaining that the bank had settled to avoid costly litigation.
New York regulators accused the $3.6 billion-asset thrift, which is based in Roslyn, N.Y., of charging blacks, Hispanics, and Asians about $1,000 more per loan than whites. The excesses were linked to the bank's "overage" program, which rewarded loan officers for getting borrowers to pay above-market rates on loans. The state also claimed minorities were charged high rates 3.5 times more often than whites.
Roslyn, parent of Roslyn Savings Bank, will pay $5,000 each to more than 550 minority borrowers. It also suspended its overage program Feb. 2 and agreed not to restart it without instituting a comprehensive compliance program that includes significant data collection and training.
New York regulators said the discrimination began in August 1995, shortly after Roslyn bought Residential First Inc., a Hauppauge, N.Y., mortgage company. The state relied on statistical sampling, which showed that the average Roslyn loan price paid by minorities statewide was greater than the average price paid by whites statewide.
Roslyn disputed the findings and commissioned its own survey, which found that pricing discrimination disappeared when the data were broken down by county.
"It is geography-not race-that is driving the pricing differences," said Andrew L. Sandler, a partner in the Washington office of the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm who represents Roslyn.
But Ms. McCaul defended the state's conclusions, saying geographical breakdowns are irrelevant because the bank underwrites all loans centrally.
Neil Milner, president of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, said states are increasingly empowering banking departments to enforce consumer protection laws.
"The states in the past have deferred to the federal government," Mr. Milner said "But now we are seeing state legislatures becoming more active, so now state regulators have to address issues that were not there before."
But James McLaughlin, director of regulatory and trust affairs at the American Bankers Association, urged bankers not to overreact. "This is part of the normal role of a state agency," he said. "Banks just need to be aware that the state agencies will be checking on fair lending as well."
New York's 1974 human rights law prohibits lenders from discriminating against minority borrowers. It permits the banking department to assess fines of up to $10,000 per violation, collect compensatory damages, and require lenders to take steps to prevent future discrimination.