A woman with two children living in the District of Columbia, working part time and receiving regular child support payments, went to a local retailer to buy furniture on an installment plan. With no outstanding debts and a good credit rating, she should have satisfied the requirements for the credit she wanted. The retailer turned her down because part of her income was from child support.
A widow, also from Washington, with an income of about $25,000 a year from Social Security and her husband's estate applied for an American Express card. American Express turned her down because she did not have a job.
In both of these cases, which have been brought to the attention of the Women's Legal Defense Fund here, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was probably violated.
American Express has given the widow her card after receiving a letter from the Defense Fund. The other case is still being investigated.
Area consumer groups, lenders, and the 12 federal agencies charged with enforcing equal credit regulations reveal a muddle of sometimes conflicting attitudes and practices. They say they are uncertain whether Washington creditors are following the complex law or not.
Individual cases of discrimination continue to surface sporadically but there has been no active monitoring of lending practise, a failure that is being blamed on the federal enforcement agencies responsible for monitoring and consumer education.
"With the exception of the Federal Trade Commission, the agencies have not been doing their job," charged Linda Cohen, Washington-based credit task force Coordinator for the National Organization for Women.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which went into effect in October 1975, prohibits discrimination in lending because of sex or marital status. As of March 23 of this year the law also forbids lenders to deny credit because of race, color, religion, national origin, the exercise of rights under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, and source of income, including income totally or partially from public assistance. In addition, Washington's human rights law adds sexual preference to the list.
The laws do not mean that everybody can receive credit, but that people applying for credit must be judged on their financial situation, not on other characteristics. The legislation applies to banks, credit unions, savings and loan associations, retailers and virtually anyone who offers credit.
The federal law covers the entire process from the information lenders may request on application forms, whose name the credit appears in, and who signs for the loan, to how criteria may be developed to judge applications. In addition, Congress has said the "effects test," which outlaws practices that are not openly discriminating but have the effect of excluding certain groups, will now be used to decide if lenders are discriminating.
George Reeves, vice president of the District of Columbia National Bank, explained, "It's hard to understand part of the regulations and it won't get cleared up until somebody gets sued. That's the unfortunate thing."
Top management people trying to understand the law face an additional problem in making sure that their loan officers and people dealing directly with applicants understand the law.
"Lenders are nervous about that but that's their problem." Ilona Nickels, credit chairwoman for the Women's Legal Defense Fund said. "If it means intensive training for their employees, so be it."
Interviews with some of Washington's banks and savings and loan associations show that most are telling employees about the law through regular staff meetings rather than intensive training sessions.
Consumer groups are worried that lenders may be changing application forms to comply with the law, but loan officers may still be asking prohibited questions.
"When you go for a loan," said Cohen, "sometimes you're put into a position where you're begging. . . . (the bank) may have a general chat with you and in the process get prohibited information without being blatant."
Washington groups are also wondering if loan applicants loans know enough about credit and the law to recognize when they are being turned down for discriminatory reasons.
"The average person is not sophisticated enough to catch discrimination," said Ray Mauer, director of the Housing Opportunity Center of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association.
His group has been involved in a suit against the OBA Federal Savings and Loan Association, charging it with violating the Fair Housing Law in its mortgage lending practices. The suit charged that OBA refused to make a loan to a black woman because her home had no basement. Although the woman accepted this reason at the time, she later discovered that OBA had made other loans on homes without basements.
Consumers now have a right to request written statements from lenders explaining why credit has been refused.
Even when people discover they have been discriminated against, Maurer said, they may not want to report it. "In this country everyone feels they have to have a good credit rating," he said. "When they're turned down for a loan it's an embarrassament. People generally don't like to go public on it."
In addition, while the law provides that consumers may bring individual and class action suits to collect damages, the required statements that lenders provide do not inform applicants of this.
Lenders must also tell applicants which agencies they can complain to or get more information from, but the results of complaints vary according to the agency involved.
Most of the agencies in the past have tried to settle complaints through informal discussions with lenders. This means there is little publicity about problems and may mean that those who have been discriminated against get less compensation than they would if they went to court.
The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, according to Lucy Griffin, assistant to the director of the Office of Housing and Urban Affairs, recently completed an examination where they found a lender did discriminate. Now they don't know whether or not to tell the woman who complained that she can take her case to court.
"If we find a complaint is justified and send a letter to the consumer saying there was discrimination and you have a right to sue, that's like saying here's your evidence," Griffin said."All you have to do is bring your letter to court and you've won. But there's a conflict of interest for us. We have to make sure that savings and loan assocations are solvent.From the solvency point of view we can't create suits like that."
The outcome of situations like the one the Bank Board is facing is serious because the federal agencies - with the exception of the Federal Trade Commission, which has actively investigated lenders and begun a suit against Montgomery ward and Co - have been sharply criticized for their own failure to enforce the law in Washington and nationally.
The agencies have claimed that lenders are complying and violations are only "technical," minimizing the seriousness of violations. Only recently, however, have these agencies begun training their examiners to check lenders, and have revised their handbooks to include credit discrimination. Griffin reported that since they began training examiners to spot discrimination they've received an influx of noncompliance reports.