By Sophia Barberini
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – A team of attorneys and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown joined a news conference here Wednesday to announce a class action lawsuit against Well Fargo bank over discriminatory and racist lending practices.
“I declare that discrimination in banking against Black and Brown people is inherently un-American. Wells Fargo, I hope you make a note of that,” said civil rights Attorney Ben Crump at the media event.
Attorney Crump was joined by a team of attorneys, former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, and some of the plaintiffs, to discuss what Plaintiff Aaron Braxton called out as Wells Fargo’s “blatant discriminatory and racist practices.”
And, according to Attorney Crump, “Wells Fargo systematically denied Black Americans and other minorities mortgages, charged them higher interest rates, refused to invest in their business practices and opportunities, and denied Black Americans the benefits the federal government intended for all Americans to weather during the pandemic.”
”I begin very straight forward,” said Attorney Crump, “Wells Fargo entered into a billion dollar class action settlement with shareholders for allegations of unethical practices in the past. In addition… they entered into a $3.7 billion settlement with federal regulators because they took advantage of their customers’ auto loans, mortgages, and bank accounts.”
Crump added, “It is long past time for Wells Fargo to enter into a resolution with the people who are most affected by their unethical practices, and that is the marginalized minorities who were denied economic parity with white citizens and the minority customers of Wells Fargo who still, every month, have to pay high interest mortgage payments. That’s what this is about. This is about equality and fairness to all your customers, Wells Fargo.”
Attorney Trent Copeland, of Ellis, George, Cipollone, O’Brien, Annaguey LLP, reiterated Crump’s claim, charging, “We are here on the steps of the federal court house, not just on these steps as visitors, but people here advocating for… the 750,000 other putative plaintiffs, we’re here advocating on their behalf and asking for justice, and so while we stand on these steps of this court house, we are truly at the intersection, at the crossroad, or racial justice, equity, and inclusion as it relates to home ownership.”
According to Crump, Wells Fargo was denying Black and Brown people mortgage loans during the pandemic, when interest rates were exceptionally low.
“We all know that the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on Black Americans, but if Wells Fargo had just extended the same opportunities to Black customers as they did to white customers, we could have enjoyed unprecedented progress in closing the homeownership gap among Black Americans, building Black wealth and family stability, driving investment opportunities in Black neighborhoods and increasing intergenerational wealth for Black families,” said Crump.
Attorney Crump continued, “These were historic lows in the interest rate…an opportunity for people…to capture an opportunity where their mortgages would have been less than two percent. (But) they will never get this opportunity again in the foreseeable future. Many commentators who have observed these factors have said this was the greatest loss of opportunity for wealth for Black Americans in modern US history.”
Crump added those denied loans and left with higher interest rates were just as qualified as their white counterparts who were receiving the opposite treatment.
“Our plaintiffs were in positions to secure these historic low interest rates but they were unlawfully discriminated against because of the color of their skin. We won’t let this happen anymore. Banks cannot treat Black people and Brown people like second class citizens,” asserted Crump.
Former SF Mayor and Speaker of the CA Assembly Brown echoed Attorney Crump’s sentiments.
“(T)hese are not people who are broke, these are people who have earned money, they have worked hard to earn money, they want equality, homeownership, but as they unfolded, even though they qualified, they didn’t qualify for legitimate consideration on their loans. Yes, they could make a loan, but it will cost them a hell of a lot more than their neighbor,” said Brown.
“Homeownership is the heart of the American Dream and Wells Fargo has pushed that dream out of reach for thousands of Black and Brown Americans with their blatant discrimination loan practices. Just as we have cried out against policing practices that kill Black people and Brown people, so do we denounce Wells Fargo racially motivated banking practices that kill Black and Brown opportunity,” added Crump.
Brown expressed the importance of action against these racist and discriminatory practices by noting his own experiences when he moved to San Francisco, explaining that when he learned about the lawsuit against Wells Fargo, he was optimistic, like when he first arrived in California.
“I left the world of discrimination that was part of a way of life in Mineola, Texas, and I came here to San Francisco anticipating that it was all behind me, but to my great surprise, it wasn’t…” said Brown.
Brown recounted the demonstration he conducted on the issue of housing in San Francisco six decades ago, the first in the city, and, referencing Wells Fargo, said he “would think that things would have been learned by one of the premiere institutions in San Francisco,” by now.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Christopher Williams, who has two decades of experience in financial services, explained his experience applying for a home equity loan with Wells Fargo.
“I had strong employment, good income, a low debt to income ratio, and a strong equity position in my home, all of the factors that I thought make me a well-qualified borrower. I did not consider one factor, I did not consider the color of my skin, nor my race when I thought about my qualifications,” said Williams.
Williams’ equity line of credit was approved. However, he was informed that his rate was going to be prime plus three points. Further, he found this was due to a discrepancy with his credit score. Wells Fargo told Williams that his credit score was 101 points lower than what he knew it to be when he applied for the loan.
When Wells Fargo could not provide him any reason or solution for the discrepancy, he declined the loan and went to a different lender with the same application where his line of credit was approved for prime minus a quarter.
Williams informed Wells Fargo that he felt their practices were discriminatory. The bank said they would launch an investigation but, ultimately, returned to Williams claiming they had done nothing wrong.
“They said there were ‘other factors’ that they considered when approving loans. I asked what those other factors were… I don’t mind if you change the rules of the game, just let me know what those rules are so that I can play them to my advantage,” stated Williams.
Plaintiff Aaron Braxton had a similar experience with Wells Fargo when he tried to lower his interest rate from “six percent to as close to one percent as possible” and was given the “runaround for a year and a half.”
“I love the skin that I’m in, but let me just say it’s tough being an African American in this country,” said Braxton. “When attempting to refinance our homes, homes that are supposed to represent the American Dream, and we’re asked to send documents after documents over and over and over again. Are they doing this to everybody, or are they only doing this to Black folks?”
Braxton continued, “Wells Fargo, for centuries, has had a history of raking in billions of dollars off the blatant discriminatory practices against African Americans. The interesting thing is, they’ve already calculated their risk. They know that the amount of money they paid in compensatory damages is crumbs compared to the amount of money they’ve made off of our backs, so they continue to do it, because to them, discrimination is big business and manipulation and isolation is one of their greatest weapons.”
Braxton emotionally concluded, “It is time that we collectively say enough is enough. It’s time we send Wells Fargo a message that we, as a nation of compassionate, hard-working individuals with integrity and honor, will no longer stand for these blatant discriminatory and racist practices. That when you come for one of us, you come for all of us, and we will no longer stand for it.”
Plaintiff Dr. Gia Gray also briefly shared her experience of attempting to refinance her two homes, one in Northern California and the other in Chicago. Dr. Gray explained that she “kept getting the runaround about [her] Chicago property, which was not in an all-white area,” and knew that the process “should not take this long.”
“After learning that other people were also going through what I was going through, I just feel as though now is my time to use my voice to help others,” stated Dr. Gray. “Wells Fargo has to be accountable. We want action; we want action now.”
“Justice delayed won’t be justice denied in this instance because we’re going to get justice. Wells Fargo, we’re gonna get justice,” promised Crump.
Attorney Crump highlighted that Wednesday’s press conference came on the 69th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“Today we are fighting the 21st century battle in civil rights which is one of economic justice, and I believe, just like Brown v Board of Education was the seminal civil rights case in the 20th century, we believe that this case for the bias and discriminatory actions of this big bank, this bank too big to fail, is a seminal case in the 21st century battle for civil rights,” expressed Crump.
Crump explained he wants to have hope that the new executives at Wells Fargo will deliver the changes they have promised, but maintained that he always thinks of his grandmother’s teachings, “Your actions speak so loud, I need not hear your words.”
Crump concluded, “What do we want Wells Fargo to do? To do right by your customers. Do right by your customers irrespective if the color of their skin is Black or Brown. We have an opportunity to all be better for this, Wells Fargo. All of us can be better based on your decision going forward.”