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Class action lawsuit alleging discrimination filed against Navy Federal after CNN exclusive report

By Rene Marsh, Casey Tolan and Audrey Ash, CNN

(CNN) — The largest credit union in the US is facing new scrutiny over racial disparities in its mortgage lending following a CNN investigative report, with a class-action lawsuit filed Monday alleging the lender discriminated against Black and Latino applicants, and a senior congressional Democrat demanding answers about its practices.

The complaint against Navy Federal Credit Union, filed in federal court in Virginia on Sunday, comes on the heels of CNN’s story, which found the credit union had the widest disparity in conventional mortgage approval rates between White and Black borrowers of any major lender last year.

“When describing its corporate values, Navy Federal claims that it ‘champions community,’ and that it is ‘dedicated…to embracing and celebrating diversity and inclusion in all the communities’ it serves,” the complaint, which cites CNN’s reporting, states. “But Navy Federal’s claims of community support are meaningless in the face of its actions: systematic discrimination in housing, in violation of federal law.”

While CNN’s analysis did not prove Navy Federal is discriminating against borrowers, it did find significant racial gaps in the credit union’s mortgage approval rates.

The credit union didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment this week. On Tuesday, it announced that it had hired Debo P. Adegbile, a leading civil rights attorney and former commissioner of the US Commission on Civil Rights, to “assess our mortgage lending policies and practices and make recommendations to drive further access to home ownership.”

Navy Federal, which lends to military servicemembers, defense personnel, veterans, and their families approved more than 75% of the White borrowers who applied for a new conventional home purchase mortgage in 2022, according to the most recent data available from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But less than 50% of Black borrowers who applied for the same type of loan were approved.

The nearly 29-percentage-point gap in Navy Federal’s approval rates was the widest of any of the 50 lenders that originated the most mortgage loans last year. The disparity remained even after accounting for variables such as applicants’ income, debt-to-income ratio, property value, and down payment percentage, CNN’s review found.

In total, the credit union rejected about 3,700 Black applicants for home purchase mortgages last year, potentially blocking them from homeownership just as interest rates spiked. And Navy Federal also approved Latino borrowers at significantly lower rates than White borrowers.

US Rep. Maxine Waters, the ranking Democratic member of the House Financial Services Committee, said in a statement Monday that she was “appalled” by CNN’s findings.

“Navy Federal must explain both to Congress and their members how such practices took place, what immediate steps are being taken to correct the harm done, and who in management will be held responsible,” Waters said. She also urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and National Credit Union Administration, two federal regulators that oversee Navy Federal, to “promptly investigate this matter.”

While this type of discrimination may be par for the course for a profit-driven megabank, a member-driven credit union should know better,” Waters added.

The lawsuit – filed by multiple law firms, including that of civil rights attorney Ben Crump – details the stories of two named plaintiffs whose mortgage applications were denied by Navy Federal:

·         Cherelle Jacob, a 40-year-old Black resident of Washington state, and her husband, who is in the armed services, together “make approximately $200,000 in salary, have no debt, have ample savings, and both have ‘exceptional’ credit scores above 800,” according to the complaint. The suit says Jacob and her husband sought a mortgage from Navy Federal in October 2023 “to support the purchase of a modest family home” and were denied, before being approved by another lender.

·         Laquita Oliver, a 44-year-old Black resident of Miami Dade County, Florida, works as a capital improvement project analyst and had previously co-owned a small business. According to the complaint, “she makes approximately $100,000 per year in salary, has good credit, a history of home ownership, and very little debt.” After a month-long process, her mortgage application was denied.

The lawsuit accuses Navy Federal of violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibit lending discrimination based on race.

The suit seeks to represent a broad class of potential plaintiffs: all Navy Federal minority residential loan applicants from 2018 through the present whose applications were denied, approved at higher interest rates or subject to less favorable terms compared to similar non-minority applicants, as well as those whose applications were processed more slowly than typical.

“Our goal in filing this lawsuit is to obtain economic justice for Black and Latino borrowers, who, we allege, Navy Federal denied their piece of the American Dream,” attorney Adam Levitt, who is representing one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

In a statement last week, Navy Federal spokesperson Bill Pearson defended the credit union’s lending practices.

“Navy Federal Credit Union is committed to equal and equitable lending practices and strict adherence to all fair lending laws,” Pearson said. “Employee training, fair lending statistical testing, third-party evaluations, and compliance reviews are embedded in our lending practices to ensure fairness across the board.”

Pearson said that CNN’s analysis “does not accurately reflect our practices” because it did not account for “major criteria required by any financial institution to approve a mortgage loan.” Those factors included “credit score, available cash deposits and relationship history with lender,” he said.

But that information is not available in the public mortgage data. Navy Federal declined to release additional data about its loans to CNN that included borrowers’ credit scores or other variables. In addition, most of the Navy Federal applications that were denied are listed as being rejected for reasons other than “credit history.”

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