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BLACKS FILE SUIT, SAY CAR LOANS HIGHER FOR THEM

Apr 24, 2002

African-American car buyers from the Nashville area have sued four lenders, including Franklin's Primus Financial Services, saying black borrowers are charged higher interest than similarly situated white borrowers.

The four suits, filed this month in U.S. District Court in Nashville, seek class-action status and are similar to pending complaints other black borrowers lodged here against Nissan's and General Motors' financing arms.

Along with Primus - a wholesale financing unit of Ford Motor Credit Co. - Bank of America N.A. was sued. Wells Fargo Financial Acceptance Inc. and Bank One Corp., along with related companies, also were named in separate suits.

Spokeswomen with the companies declined to comment, saying their companies hadn't yet received the complaints or that they couldn't comment on pending litigation. The complaints allege that the financial institutions would lend money to car buyers via participating car dealers, which originated the loans.

According to the plaintiffs, the financing companies would first set a minimum interest rate based on the borrower's creditworthiness. Then, the plaintiffs allege, they let dealers mark up the base interest rate, based on subjective factors.

The lender and dealer split the markup, and neither the dealer markup nor the fact that the money is split is disclosed to borrowers, the plaintiffs say.

''It is well-known throughout the banking and lending industry that (a) subjective pricing system results in African-American(s) paying more in non-risk-related credit charges than white customers,'' the plaintiffs allege.

The complaints don't give specific money figures on what the bias may cost customers but say disparities can be shown by ''statistical review of an adequate, competent and relevant data set.''

The plaintiffs assert that the financial institutions are legally responsible for the discrimination resulting from the dealers' setting subjective markups on loans.

They've asked the court to have the markups declared illegal and require that the practice be stopped and that the lenders pay back the discriminatory share of the markups.

No trial date has been set.

Kathy Carlson covers utilities and general business. She can be reached at 259-8047 or at kcarlson@tennessean.com.

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