An argument by Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. that federal law permits the bank to discriminate against certain immigrants was rejected by a federal judge, ruling in a lawsuit alleging that the financial giant illegally denied qualified applicants, including college students, loans because of their alienage or immigration status.
The suit, brought by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Outten & Golden LLP on behalf of six individuals who were granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, and the California League of United Latin American Citizens, alleges that Wells Fargo violated federal and state civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on alienage and immigration status.
In a ruling issued late Thursday, District Judge Maxine M. Chesney of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the plaintiffs can pursue their claims against Wells Fargo under a federal law that prohibits alienage discrimination and under a California law that prohibits discrimination based on immigration status.
“Wells Fargo should cease defending the indefensible,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “Refusing to even consider loan applications from certain immigrants is odd behavior for a bank looking to build its business; this anti-immigrant discrimination is scandalous.”
The plaintiffs include Mitzie Perez, a third-year undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside. Ms. Perez obtained a Social Security number and work permit through DACA, which allows immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to live and work in the U.S. lawfully.
In August 2016, she sought a student loan through the Wells Fargo website. According to the lawsuit, Wells Fargo’s application required disclosure of citizenship status and Ms. Perez was denied a loan based on her response that she is a not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Seeking to ascertain the reason for the denial, Ms. Perez returned to the prior screen on the bank's website and changed her response to the question about citizenship to “I am a permanent resident alien,” and then received information about a student loan option, including a note at the top of the screen that read: ‘Based on the citizenship status you provided, a U.S. citizen cosigner will be required for this application,’” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status to include all persons in the United States since 2013 who were denied the right to contract for a loan or other financial product by Wells Fargo because they were not U.S. citizens despite satisfying Wells Fargo’s Customer Identification Program (CIP) compliance.
“Wells Fargo should be treating all immigrants fairly, but since they have refused to, they will have to defend their discrimination in court,” said Victor Viramontes, MALDEF national senior counsel. “Now that the bank’s attempt to push this case out of court has failed, the brave immigrants who came forward are a big step closer to getting justice.”
The lawsuit alleged that Wells Fargo’s practices violate federal and state civil rights laws, including 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the California Unfair Competition Law, according to the complaint. Judge Chesney rejected the bank’s primary argument that a separate federal statute that regulates lending governs and controls the civil rights statutes that are the basis of the plaintiffs’ suit.
“This decision is an important affirmation that, when making credit decisions, private banks cannot ignore their legal obligations not to discriminate based on citizenship or immigration status,” said David Lopez, a partner in Outten & Golden’s Washington, DC office. “Non-citizens should be evaluated on the same terms and conditions as U.S. citizens when accessing credit for education or living expenses.”
The case is Mitzie Perez, et al., v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Case No. 17-cv-00454 in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.
Read the ruling here.
Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the “law firm of the Latino community,” MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit: www.maldef.org.