In the first of what may be many 4-4 split decisions following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, No. 14-520, leaving in place the Eighth Circuit’s ruling that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act’s (“ECOA”) prohibition against marital status discrimination applies to loan applicants, but does not extend to loan guarantors.

Justices vs. Justices

Hawkins raised the question of whether ECOA’s proscription against discrimination based upon marital status applied to two wives who were required to guarantee their husbands’ business loans. Specifically, Valerie Hawkins and Janice Patterson claimed that Community Bank of Raymore violated ECOA by requiring them to execute personal guaranties of their respective husband’s business loans and that doing so constituted discrimination based upon marital status.

ECOA

The District Court granted summary judgment for the Bank, finding that Ms. Hawkins and Ms. Patterson were not “applicants” as that term is defined by ECOA and, as such, the Bank had not violated ECOA. Acknowledging that the Sixth Circuit had reached a contrary conclusion in RL BB Acquisition, LLC v. Bridgemill Commons Dev. Grp., 754 F.3d 380 (6th Cir. 2014), the Eighth Circuit, nonetheless, affirmed the trial court’s ruling, having determined that a “guarantor” does not constitute an “applicant” and is, therefore, not protected from marital status discrimination under ECOA. Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, 761 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. 2014).

Loan App

Because the judgment was “affirmed by an equally divided Court,” the Supreme Court’s ruling does not set nationwide precedent. It applies only in states within the Eighth Circuit. Notably, the 4-4 ruling in Hawkins leaves in place the conflicting ruling in RL BB Acquisition (ECOA definition of “applicant” includes “guarantors”) in the states within the Sixth Circuit, as well as other conflicting state court rulings. For the time being, the question of whether a “guarantor” constitutes an “applicant” and is, therefore, entitled to protection from marital status discrimination will continue to remain an unsettled issue.

Justice Scales