By Joel Rosenblatt
Wells Fargo & Co. is pursuing private mediation to settle claims of widespread discrimination against Black homeowners by denying them lower interest rates through refinancing and forcing them to pay more for loans.
Lawyers for the bank and borrowers said they’ve agreed to work with a former federal judge to try to resolve a group of class-action lawsuits — which, if successful, would spare Wells Fargo from having to publicly litigate allegations that it engaged in a modernized version of “redlining.”
The attorneys committed to holding a mediation session within the next six months with Layn Phillips, a retired judge from Oklahoma, and one of his partners, according to a filing late Friday in San Francisco federal court. Any settlement would require court approval.
“The parties are unsure at this time whether settlement is likely, but agree to work together in good faith to achieve settlement, if possible and at the appropriate time, with the assistance of a highly regarded private mediator,” the opposing lawyers said in a joint court filing last month.
The lawsuits cite reporting by Bloomberg News last year showing that Wells Fargo rejected a disproportionate number of Black homeowners’ refinancing applications in 2020 when the pandemic set off a rush to lock in lower rates.
Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who is part of the team representing homeowners, has denounced the company’s practices as “banking while Black.”
A Wells Fargo representative had no immediate comment. In a court filing last June, the company denied that it “engages in any discrimination.”
When Bloomberg News reported on the disparities in March 2022, Wells Fargo declined to comment about individual customers but didn’t dispute Bloomberg’s statistical findings. It said it treats all potential borrowers the same, is more selective than other lenders, and an internal review of the bank’s 2020 refinancing decisions confirmed that “additional, legitimate, credit-related factors” were responsible for the differences.
Last year, Phillips helped broker a $440 million settlement of lawsuits over the opioid epidemic brought by more than 400 Native American tribes against the three largest US drug distributors. In May, serving as a court-appointed special referee in a long-running feud, Phillips awarded more than $203 million to billionaire hedge fund founder Louis Bacon in his defamation case against the Finnish-Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard.
The consolidated cases are In re Wells Fargo Mortgage Discrimination Litigation, 22-cv-00990-US District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
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