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Protecting Borrowers from Credit Discrimination in All Forms
August 1, 2014 Posted by

This post appears courtesy of Greg Friel, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

The Department of Justice has worked vigorously and effectively to protect American consumers, ensure fair treatment for struggling borrowers, and seek justice for victims of discriminatory lending practices.  The Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and its Fair Lending Unit enforce the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), Fair Housing Act (FHA), and Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).  This week, we submitted our annual report to Congress on our activities to enforce these laws and protect borrowers from any credit discrimination in any form.

In the four years since the Fair Lending Unit was established, the division has filed or resolved 34 lending matters under ECOA, FHA, and SCRA.  This year’s enforcement actions bring the total amount for the settlements in these matters to over $1 billion in monetary relief for impacted communities and individual borrowers.  These cases include the record $335 million settlement of a 2011 lawsuit against Bank of America for the activities of Countrywide Financial and the $234 million settlement of a 2012 lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank.  At the core of the Countrywide and Wells Fargo complaints was a simple story:  if you were an African-American or a Hispanic borrower, you were more likely to be placed in a high-cost subprime loan or pay more for your mortgage loan than a similarly-qualified white borrower.  After these and other settlements were entered, the division worked aggressively to locate victims of the alleged discrimination and ensure they were compensated in a timely manner.

The division’s fair lending enforcement efforts expand beyond mortgage lending to protecting borrowers from any form of credit discrimination.  In December 2013, the division reached its largest ever auto lending settlement when Ally Bank and Financial Inc. agreed to pay $98 million for pricing discrimination in its automobile lending practices.  The settlement provided $80 million in direct relief to African-American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander borrowers who were charged higher interest rate markups on auto loans than white borrowers with similar creditworthiness.  The division continues to investigate potential discrimination based on race, national origin and gender in the setting of discretionary pricing in indirect automobile and motorcycle lending. 

Collaboration, cooperation and partnership are critical to all we have accomplished.  Much of our fair lending enforcement is done in conjunction with the banking regulatory agencies, including several joint enforcement actions with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  From 2009 to 2014, the bank regulatory agencies, the FTC and HUD referred a total of 147 matters involving a potential pattern or practice of lending discrimination to the Justice Department.  Seventy-three of the 147 matters involved race or national origin discrimination, a combined total that is far higher than the 30 race and national origin discrimination referrals the division received from 2001 to 2008.  We have also had great success in partnering with state attorneys general.  In January 2014, we partnered with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office to investigate and eventually bring the division’s first case alleging reverse redlining in auto lending. 

The division’s efforts over the past four years have made clear that the Justice Department will hold financial institutions, regardless of size and market share, accountable for lending discrimination in any form.  While many lenders are making every effort to develop sound policies and eliminate or reduce the discretion that led to many of the abuses of the past, others are exploring new ways to exploit the most vulnerable and underserved in our communities.  In the coming year, we will continue to enhance and refine the collaboration established over the last several years with our governmental partners and will continue to root out any new insidious methods that may perpetuate segregation or restrict access to fair and equal credit.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
Celebrating 24 Years of the ADA – Keeping School Doors Open to All
July 24, 2014 Posted by

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

Victor Hugo wrote, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  The Civil Rights Division enforces federal civil rights laws to keep school doors open to all students and prevent discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Civil Rights Division enforces Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require schools, as well as localities and state agencies that provide educational services, to guarantee an equal opportunity for students with disabilities.  This guarantee is essential for these students to take advantage of the educational programs, services and activities that provide life-long benefits.  On the 24th Anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate the countless ways in which that landmark legislation has improved the lives of students with disabilities. 

The division has a multi-faceted enforcement strategy to help assure an equal opportunity for students with disabilities at school.  Through briefs and statements of interest filed in federal courts across the country, we have sought to ensure that schools and colleges meet their obligations and address discrimination faced by students with disabilities – from the failure to provide services to which students with disabilities are entitled to protecting students with disabilities from bullying.          

The division strives to end policies that discriminate against children based upon myths, fears and stereotypes about what children with disabilities can do.  These myths and stereotypes sometimes lead schools to reject students with disabilities, to assume they should be placed in special schools or classes or to deny them accommodations.  We work to ensure schools and others involved in education live up to their obligations to include and accommodate students with disabilities.  This includes providing accommodations on higher education entrance examinations and ensuring college instructional materials are accessible.

We are working to support students with disabilities who find themselves forced out of school doors as a result of inappropriate discipline, over-use of suspension and expulsion and “zero tolerance” for behavior infractions.  For some students, forcing them out the school door means literally moving them into a jail cell.  These students must have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and life skills they need to grow and thrive as independent adults.  In an effort to eliminate this “school to prison pipeline” for students with disabilities, we engage and negotiate with school districts to change discipline policies that discriminate on the basis of disability.  And even when students with disabilities are incarcerated, we work to ensure that they receive educational services so they can return to their communities better prepared to participate and contribute.

When students with disabilities face harassment or bullying on the basis of their disability, they are often unable to learn because they feel anxious, threatened or in danger.  Such harassment often causes irreparable damage to a student’s self-esteem and the stigma from disability-based harassment may last a lifetime.  The division is investigating complaints, negotiating comprehensive agreements with schools to address harassment and working with federal, state and local partners to develop policies to help end harassment. 

The ADA has opened many doors for many people over the past 24 years, and the division recognizes, as Albert Einstein noted, “that knowledge of what is does not open doors directly to what should be.”  We are fighting each and every day to push open doors on the path to “what should be” for all students with disabilities across the country.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
Celebrating Enforcement of the ADA: An Anniversary Week Blog
July 24, 2014 Posted by

“The Department of Justice is working towards a future in which all the doors are open – to equality of opportunity, to independent living, to integration and to economic self-sufficiency – for everyone, including people with disabilities.”  Eric Holder, Attorney General 

People with disabilities have long faced barriers to full participation in society.  For the past 24 years, the Civil Rights Division has made protecting the rights of people with disabilities a top priority by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in more than seven million places of public accommodation nationwide, and all operations of more than 90,000 units of state and local governments.  Our aggressive enforcement of the ADA touches the lives of people with disabilities and their families in many ways. 

Today, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we highlight some of the ways the division is ensuring that technology improves access instead of creating new barriers for individuals living with disabilities.  

The explosion of new technology has dramatically changed the way America communicates, learns and does business.  For many people with disabilities, however, the benefits of this technology revolution remain beyond their reach.  Websites for many businesses and government entities remain inaccessible to people with vision or hearing disabilities.  Fortunately, websites and digital technologies can be made accessible, much like adding ramps to building entrances.  Electronic documents, websites, and other electronic information can be accessible to blind people and other people with disabilities through common computer technology.  Examples include “screen reader” programs which read electronic documents aloud, refreshable Braille displays, and keyboard navigation and captioning.  The Civil Rights Division is working to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as new technology continues to emerge. 

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it reached a settlement with the Orange County Clerk of Courts in Florida to remedy violations of the ADA involving accessible technology.  The settlement resolves allegations that the Clerk of Courts failed to provide an attorney who is blind with electronic court documents in an accessible format readable by his screen reader technology.  

Under the ADA, state and local courts must make their programs, services, and activities accessible to qualified individuals with disabilities.  The official court record is a program, service, and activity of the court and, therefore, needs to be made accessible.     

Under the settlement agreement, the Clerk of Courts will provide individuals with disabilities with any document in the official court record in an accessible format upon request.   The settlement agreement also ensures that the Clerk of Courts’ website is accessible in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/).  Further, the Clerk of Courts will pay $10,000 in damages and receive training on the ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA requirements. 

Another recent consent decree resolving allegations by the Department of Justice relating to accessible technology involves H&R Block’s website and mobile applications.   

As one of the largest tax return preparers in the country, H&R Block offers many services through its website (www.hrblock.com) and its mobile apps, including tax preparation, instructional videos, office location information, live video conference/chat with tax professionals, online and in-store services and electronic tax-return filing. 

Last December, the Justice Department intervened in the lawsuit National Federal of the Blind et al. v. HRB Digital LLC et al. to enforce Title III of the ADA.  The department’s complaint alleged that H&R Block failed to make its website accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing and other disabilities.  

Under the terms of the five-year consent decree negotiated by the parties, H&R Block’s website, tax filing utility and mobile apps will conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA and the website will be accessible for the next tax filing season on Jan. 1, 2015.  And in addition to paying $45,000 to the two individual plaintiffs and a $55,000 civil penalty, H&R Block will: appoint a skilled web accessibility coordinator; initiate training on accessible design for its web content personnel; evaluate employee and contractor performance based on successful web access; and hire an outside consultant to prepare annual independent evaluations of H&R Block’s online accessibility. 

As Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and a partner on this consent decree, explained, “For those with disabilities, an inaccessible website puts them at a great disadvantage and further perpetuates a feeling of dependence and reliance on others.  With thoughtful and proper web design, businesses and organizations can have a great impact on the daily lives of people with disabilities who, like everyone else, seek to enjoy the benefits of technology.”

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
Celebrating 24 Years of the ADA – Gateway to the Community
July 23, 2014 Posted by

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

TUESDAY:  Gateway to the Community

This week, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we recognize and celebrate the different doorways that the ADA is opening up to people with disabilities.  Today, we highlight the ADA as a doorway to the community.

With the enactment of the ADA, Congress provided a clear and comprehensive national mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  Consistent with this, the Civil Rights Division works to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with all types of disabilities.  In short, we work to provide people with disabilities with meaningful opportunities to live life to their fullest potential.

Over the past year, we have continued our aggressive efforts to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which recognized that the civil rights of people with disabilities are violated under the ADA when they are unnecessarily segregated from the rest of society.  Under the ADA, states are required to avoid unnecessarily placing persons with disabilities in institutions and to ensure that they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.  In this administration, the division has engaged in Olmstead enforcement activities in approximately 45 matters in 24 states on behalf of children and adults with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities who are in or at risk of entering segregated settings, including state-run and private institutions, nursing homes, board and care homes, and sheltered workshops.  Just last year, we participated in 18 Olmstead matters across the country.  Under statewide settlement agreements we have reached in eight states, over 46,000 people with disabilities across the country will have the opportunity to live and participate in their communities.

One of the most recent examples of our work ensuring community integration of adults with serious mental illness was in New Hampshire where the department finalized an agreement with the state to significantly expand and enhance its capacity to address the needs of over three thousand adults with serious mental illness in integrated community settings.  The agreement requires New Hampshire to create mobile crisis teams and community crisis apartments throughout the state as an alternative to more restrictive settings; to increase Assertive Community Treatment teams; to provide much more supported housing that is scattered throughout the community; and to significantly increase the number of people receiving integrated supported employment services in New Hampshire.

All of the decree requirements will foster the independence of people with serious mental illness and enable them to participate more fully in community life.  The expanded community services will significantly reduce visits to hospital emergency rooms and will avoid unnecessary institutionalization at state mental health facilities, including New Hampshire Hospital (the state’s psychiatric hospital) and the Glencliff Home (the state nursing home for people with mental illness).  Recently, the governor of New Hampshire signed into law a funding bill that will enable the state to implement the terms of the decree.  The new law authorizes approximately $9 million in additional mental health funding through next summer and commits the state to over $64 million in additional mental health funding through state fiscal year 2018.  Click here for more information.

To find out more about DOJ Olmstead enforcement work, visit the Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone website, and visit our Faces of Olmstead website to read about some of the individuals whose lives have been improved by the Olmstead decision and the department’s Olmstead enforcement efforts.  For more general information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit ADA.gov, or call the toll-free ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TTY).

Shared Struggles, Shared Successes: Working at the Intersection of LGBTI and Disability Rights
July 21, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

During LGBTI Pride Month, advocates, scholars, authors and artists joined officials from across the government at the White House Forum on LGBTI & Disability Issues.  This first-of-its-kind event focused on intersections between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and disability communities, and was attended by representatives from across the federal government.  As the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on July 26, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reflects on the civil rights challenges faced by both communities.

As the arm of the Justice Department tasked with enforcing both the ADA and civil rights laws that protect LGBTI individuals, the Civil Rights Division was proud to participate in this important forum.  Megan Schuller, an attorney in the Disability Rights Section and member of the division’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Working Group, emphasized the similar challenges faced by LGBTI individuals and by people with disabilities, the unique challenges faced by LGBTI people with disabilities and the fact that both groups are stronger when they work together.

Many of the civil rights challenges faced by LGBTI people also confront people with disabilities.  Both groups are discriminated against in education, employment and housing.  Both groups face stigma from public service providers.  And both groups remain targets of harassment and hate crimes.  The division strives to address these critical issues.

The ADA demands equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment and state and local services, and stands as a natural intersection of the civil rights struggles of both groups.  Alliances between the disability community and other civil rights movements were critical to passage of the ADA, and provided a united front against challenges to the act, such as efforts to exclude people with AIDS, which were defeated due to the united front of the disability and LGBTI movements. 

As a result, the ADA protects Americans with HIV or AIDS, which disproportionately affect LGBTI people.  Combating stigma and discrimination based on HIV status is crucial to ending this epidemic.  The division’s HIV/AIDS enforcement under the ADA since the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced in July 2010 has been robust.  Much of that work has involved allegations that individuals were denied care or were treated differently in health care because they have HIV.  In 2013, the division also successfully challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ policy of segregating and discriminating against inmates with HIV, and in March 2014, reached a settlement agreement with Gwinnett College resolving allegations that the school did not allow a student with HIV to fully participate in its programs and classes. 

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which may include discrimination based on a person’s nonconformity with stereotypes associated with that person’s real or perceived gender, as well as on the basis of disability.  Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. 

The division’s settlements with the Arcadia School District in California and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota also show that sex-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and the division will use the laws and tools it has to fight the next generation of civil rights challenges. 

The division also vigorously prosecutes hate crimes, including crimes against LGBTI persons and individuals with disabilities.  The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes violence committed because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, if linked to interstate commerce.  Since the act’s passage, the division has made indictments in 27 hate crimes cases, including six separate cases in which 10 defendants committed offenses because of sexual orientation.  In 2013, the department charged five people with a hate crime for abuse of victims with mental disabilities; the first case in the nation to challenge a hate crime against people with disabilities. 

Though much progress has been made in these areas, substantial work remains.  To illustrate, while the ADA protects individuals from disability-based discrimination in employment, the civil rights laws do not yet fully protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of their LGBTI status.  The same is true of education, housing and other areas where there are not explicit prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Even so, the division is committed to using every tool available to fight for the rights of LGBTI individuals and persons with disabilities.  As the White House Forum reminded its participants, those battles are essential to achieving a more equal America for all.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
Helping Civil Legal Aid Attorneys Identify and Respond to Elder Abuse
June 17, 2014 Posted by

This blog is courtesy of Meg Morrow, an attorney advisor for the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).  Ms. Morrow manages OVC’s efforts to respond to elder abuse.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) joins with other components within the Department of Justice to acknowledge the prevalence of elder abuse in the United States and to recognize promising advances in the field.  Having recognized World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, 2014, we can glean hope from the increase in awareness and recognition of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in this country while facing the challenges of the work that remains.

OVC believes that the more we educate victim service providers, criminal justice professionals and allied practitioners about victim issues, the better able those professionals are to serve victims who need those services.  In the area of elder abuse, OVC has worked diligently to develop training for the full range of professionals who interact with elders who may be victims of abuse, including victim service providers, physicians, nurses, law enforcement, adult protective services, aging services providers, judges and court personnel and community corrections professionals.

In that spirit, OVC teamed with the department’s Elder Justice Initiative and Access to Justice Initiative to develop an interactive, online curriculum for legal aid and other civil attorneys on identifying and responding to elder abuse.  As Deputy Attorney General James Cole said when he announced this collaboration, “Legal services programs have a unique opportunity to prevent and remedy elder abuse.”

Funded through the Elder Justice Initiative, this curriculum includes six one-hour modules that address a range of issues relevant to civil attorneys who serve older clients in the course of their practice.  This training has the basic information and tools attorneys can use to identify and address the needs of their older clients who may be experiencing some form of abuse.

This week, the Department released the first three modules of the curriculum: What Every Legal Services Lawyer Needs to Know About Elder Abuse; Practical and Ethical Strategies; and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.  The three remaining modules, Elder Abuse in Long-Term Care; Financial Exploitation; and Guardianship, Conservatorship and Surrogate Decision Making, are scheduled for release later in the summer.

Legal aid attorneys regularly work with older clients who are victims of elder abuse, but too often the attorneys do not recognize the warning signs of abuse or know where to turn for help.  With this curriculum, the department aims to ensure that these critical allied practitioners have the resources they need to identify the abuse and take action.

Later this summer, Access to Justice is issuing a case study, Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to Prevent and Remedy Elder Abuse, which will be made part of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit that Associate Attorney General Tony West recently announced at the April 8, 2014, White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice.  This case study will explain the unique role civil legal aid lawyers can play in helping to prevent and remedy elder abuse.

OVC will continue to work with our partners at the department to expand services that address the needs of elder abuse victims.

I encourage legal aid lawyers, other civil attorneys and any other professionals seeking to learn about the identification of elder abuse to access the new training modules to learn more about what they can do to address elder abuse.

To learn more information on OVC’s efforts to enhance the response to elder abuse victims, please visit the office’s website.

POSTED IN: Access to Justice  |  PERMALINK
 
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