The American Civil Liberties Union sued Morgan Stanley on Monday, alleging racial discrimination over packaging subprime mortgage loans into securities.
The suit is the first to directly accuse an investment bank, rather than a lender, over loans that violate federal civil rights laws, the group said at a press conference.
Morgan Stanley encouraged a unit of now-bankrupt New Century Financial Corp to target black borrowers disproportionately with loans that had a strong possibility of foreclosure and unjustifiably high costs, the suit alleges. The investment bank received significant fees from packaging and selling these loans as securities to institutional investors, while the borrowers faced high risks of default, the ACLU said.
"It is literally the first case of Main Street holding Wall Street accountable" for the financial crisis that led millions of Americans to lose their homes and that devastated the U.S. economy, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said at a news conference.
Morgan Stanley rejected the accusations. "We believe these allegations are completely without merit and plan to defend ourselves vigorously," spokeswoman Mary Claire Delaney said in an email.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on behalf of five Detroit residents. It alleges that Morgan Stanley went beyond the traditional role of an investment bank by helping to fund loans made by New Century, setting loan volume goals and establishing terms of the loans.
The ACLU asked the court to certify the case as a class action. It said as many as 6,000 black homeowners in the Detroit area may have suffered similar discrimination as a result of being offered loans that many could not afford.
The alleged practice is a twist on claims that banks engaged in "red-lining," or refusing to provide loans and other services in low-income areas.
"It's reverse red-lining. It violates the Fair Housing Act," said Elizabeth Cabraser, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "These loans were mass produced and they were built to order, not to serve homeowners."
Discriminatory practices connected to the securitization process were endemic during the last decade throughout the financial services industry and across the nation, the ACLU said.
Critics of securitization, in which banks package loans into securities for sale to sophisticated investors, say it encourages recklessness in bank credit policies because banks do not end up holding loans they originate.
Advocates say that by removing loans from their balance sheets, banks can stimulate the economy by making additional loans.
Trillions of dollars of mortgage, credit card, automobile and other consumer loans have been securitized and sold to investors. Many of the home loans bought by the banks are insured by agencies such as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., or Freddie Mac, and the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae.
Some lawyers and economists who work with the securities industry described the lawsuit as "novel" in seeking damages for the borrowers since investment banks are several steps removed from loan origination. Morgan Stanley was chosen because it is among the few remaining "deep pockets" in the financial industry now that so many direct subprime lenders have been shut down, they said.
Anticipating an argument that the statute of limitations has passed for actions leading up to the financial crisis, the suit says Morgan Stanley's concealment of its role in the loan process and its deviation from "true underwriting standards" for the loans it purchased invalidate any legal deadlines.
MANY RECENT LAWSUITS
The ACLU lawsuit follows a spate of new litigation against Wall Street by U.S. federal and state authorities over banks' roles in triggering the financial crisis that began more than four years ago.
JPMorgan was sued last week by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for alleged subprime mortgage abuses at an investment bank that it purchased during the financial crisis. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan filed fraud charges against Wells Fargo Corp two weeks ago for a "reckless pattern" of making questionable home loans that allegedly cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance settlements.
Massachusetts earlier sued Morgan Stanley for securitizing home loans, alleging violations of a state consumer protection law. The ACLU said that case did not address the issue nationwide nor link the alleged abusive practices to discriminatory policy.
Thomas Deutsch, executive director of the American Securitization Forum, a trade group for investment banks, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include five borrowers and Michigan Legal Services.
Rubbie McCoy, a municipal swimming teacher in Detroit and one of the plaintiffs, said at the press conference that New Century pressured her to take out a loan that is now higher than the value of the home she purchased.
"In the past 12 months I've been under an enormous amount of stress trying to shield the mortgage situation from my children," she said, choking on tears. "I don't quite understand the situation myself."
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