By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether Miami can pursue lawsuits accusing major banks of predatory mortgage lending to black and Hispanic home buyers resulting in loan defaults that drove down city tax revenues and property values.
The justices will hear appeals filed by Bank of America Corp and Wells Fargo & Co of a lower court's decision to permit the lawsuits by the Florida city against the banks. They were filed under the Fair Housing Act, a federal law outlawing discrimination in housing.
Bank of America spokesman Lawrence Grayson said that although the bank is committed to the aims of the Fair Housing Act, "We believe that a municipality seeking purely monetary recovery is not covered by the statute, and we welcome the Supreme Court’s scrutiny and clarity."
Last September, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's decision to dismiss such lawsuits by the city against Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup Inc. Citigroup decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Miami accused the banks of a decade of lending discrimination in its residential housing market. The city accused Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup of steering non-white borrowers into higher-cost loans they often could not afford, even if they had good credit.
It said the banks' conduct caused Miami to lose property tax revenues, drove down property values and required the city to pay the costs of repairing and maintaining properties that went into foreclosure due to discriminatory lending.
Several U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Memphis, have accused banks, with mixed success, of discriminatory mortgage lending that prolonged the nation's housing crisis.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is the largest U.S. mortgage lender and includes the former Wachovia. Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, includes the former Countrywide Financial.
The Supreme Court ruled last year in a major Fair Housing Act case, upholding on a 5-4 vote a broad interpretation of discrimination claims allowed under the Fair Housing Act. That decision was in a Texas case and delivered a setback to lenders and insurers that sought to curtail such lawsuits.
Business interests have sought to narrow the scope of the law in a bid to fend off costly litigation.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Miami litigation and issue a ruling in its next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2017.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Will Dunham and Dan Grebler)