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VOL. 127 | NO. 108 | Monday, June 4, 2012

Settlement Brings Milestone in Wells Fargo Case

By Andy Meek

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The announcement that Wells Fargo & Co. has agreed to settle a three-year-old lawsuit filed by Memphis and Shelby County governments over the company’s lending practices – with the settlement including certain local lending commitments on Wells’ part – was certainly a denouement in the case.

But it wasn’t the only noteworthy milestone in the lawsuit, which officials from both local governments announced the filing of in a press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum at the end of 2009.

Webb Brewer, one of the attorneys representing the city and county, pointed to an early procedural decision in the case handed down by U.S. District Court Judge S. Thomas Anderson.

Anderson is the judge who allowed the case to go forward at all.

On a May morning in 2011, Anderson listened as representatives of both sides argued over a motion by Wells to dismiss the case, which was then still at an early stage.

The hearing lasted about an hour and a half. Anderson only asked a few questions and didn’t seem to tip his hand as to which way he was leaning.

In a 32-page decision released later, Anderson said the city and county had “pled sufficient facts to establish standing to pursue claims for violations of the Fair Housing Act and the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.

“Additionally, plaintiffs have adequately pled their claim that Wells Fargo’s lending practices had a disparate impact on African-Americans in Memphis and Shelby County in violation of the FHA.”

That’s one of the reasons the Memphis case was important, Brewer said – because of “the precedent that got set here.”

“We were one of the first communities to get beyond those motions and get a ruling that there was standing to raise those claims,” Brewer said.

Brewer was making a distinction between cities that have filed such lawsuits and cities like Baltimore, whose own discriminatory lending suit against Wells provided a model for Memphis – with Memphis even using some of the same attorneys in the Baltimore case.

However, Brewer said the complaint in Baltimore was dismissed more than once, with the judge providing opportunities to re-file it as long as the scope was narrower and more specific.

Besides setting a potential precedent, word of the case here got carried directly to Washington. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. traveled to Washington in early 2010 and personally laid out the reasons behind the case for Tom Perez, the assistant U.S. attorney general who heads the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Also in early 2010, Wharton laid out the case against Wells in testimony he gave in Washington to a judiciary subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The local suit was filed at a time when lawsuits were still popping up around the country with regularity in the wake of the national financial crisis.

Because of the foreclosure problem here and that so many homes are auctioned off in Memphis each year on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse, a film crew for the PBS television show “NOW with David Brancaccio” came to Memphis in 2009 to study the problem. They talked to politicians such as then-Shelby County Mayor Wharton and even ventured out to foreclosure hotspots like Frayser.

When Brancaccio asked Wharton on camera how the city could fight back against the problem, Wharton was unabashed about what should be done and foreshadowed the case against Wells.

“Well – going to court,” Wharton said. “I’m a lawyer, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I gotta sue somebody.’”

When the settlement was announced in recent days, the mayor’s tone was more measured and was hopeful about the future.

“Earlier today, I met with Wells Fargo regional president Leigh Collier in South Memphis, where she reaffirmed her company’s commitment to our community,” Wharton said in a note blasted out to his email list. “She understands that there is so much work left to do to rebuild the neighborhoods that were devastated by the foreclosure crisis of the past several years. With Wells Fargo’s support, we are on a path to help many, many Memphians realize the dream of homeownership for the first time, building the foundation for a strong, prosperous city moving forward.”

That includes Wells setting a five-year mortgage lending goal of $425 million here, including $125 million in home purchase lending to low- and moderate-income borrowers.

“We agreed that it was in the best interests of everyone involved to work together rather than to continue to be involved in a protracted legal fight,” Collier said.

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396