Access to Justice

Bank of America Corp. v. City of Miami and Wells Fargo & Co. v. City of Miami

In Bank of America Corp. v. City of Miami and Wells Fargo & Co. v. City of Miami – consolidated for Supreme Court review – the Supreme Court considered whether or not a city government can sue alleged perpetrators of racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act as an “aggrieved” person within the meaning of the statute.

Case Summary

In 2013, the City of Miami sued Bank of America and Wells Fargo for allegedly engaging in a decade-long practice of discriminatory and predatory lending. Miami claimed that the banks had targeted minority borrowers for high-risk, costly loans, and refused to extend credit to minorities on equal terms with white borrowers in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) provision that makes it unlawful to “discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling…because of race.”  According to Miami, these discriminatory practices resulted in unnecessary and premature foreclosures, which in turn cost the city tax revenue and forced the city to spend more on municipal services to address the blight in affected neighborhoods. Bank of America and Wells Fargo countered that Miami was not permitted to sue under the FHA because it was not an “aggrieved” person who had been “injured by a discriminatory housing practice” within the meaning of the Act.  The Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Miami, and Bank of America and Wells Fargo appealed the decision.

On October 7, 2016, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Miami, arguing that the city is within FHA’s definition of an “aggrieved person.” When the Framers adopted the Constitution, they conferred broad power on the federal courts established by Article III, and Congress has long enlisted private parties in the enforcement of federal law in such courts. Indeed, when Congress enacted the FHA in 1968, it gave actors, including cities, the authority to sue for injuries they suffer as a result of discrimination against others, in keeping with this long-standing practice. Furthermore, the subsequent 1988 amendments to the FHA added a formal definition of “aggrieved person,” preserving the broad reading, as well as the Court’s interpretation, of the term as applying to parties who were not themselves discriminated against, but who suffered indirect injuries.  As we discussed in our brief, the City of Miami was acutely harmed by the discriminatory practices and is permitted to sue under the FHA, in keeping with Congress’s clear intent.

The Court heard oral argument on November 8, 2016.

On May 1, 2017, the Court held, 5-3, that the City of Miami is an “aggrieved person” within the meaning of the FHA and thus can sue under the statute.  In an opinion authored by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the Court explained that its precedent had repeatedly recognized that “the FHA’s definition of person ‘aggrieved’ reflects a congressional intent to confer standing broadly,” and that “principles of statutory interpretation require[d] [the Court] to respect Congress’ decision to ratify those precedents when it reenacted the relevant statutory text.” On the separate issue of whether the banks’ lending practices were the proximate cause of Miami’s injuries, the Court concluded that the Eleventh Circuit applied the wrong standard and remanded the case to that court for further consideration of that issue.

Case Timeline

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