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Black Couple Who Said an Appraisal of Their Home Was Biased Settle Lawsuit

A Black couple who claimed an appraisal company undervalued their Baltimore home based on their race have settled their lawsuit against their mortgage lender, loanDepot, which has agreed to a number of sweeping policy changes that could offer significant relief to homeowners who allege racially biased appraisals in the future.

Under the settlement, Dr. Nathan Connolly and the estate of Dr. Shani Mott, who died on March 12, will receive a payment of an undisclosed sum, in addition to the policy changes that include immediately offering a second appraisal whenever there are indications of bias or discrimination.

Dr. Connolly and Dr. Mott, both faculty members at Johns Hopkins University, sued loanDepot, a mortgage lender, as well as Shane Lanham, an appraiser hired by a contractor for the company, in August 2022.

A year earlier, the couple had opened their home to Mr. Lanham, who is white, for an appraisal, and he put the value of their four-bedroom house in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood at $472,000. After the couple stripped their home of family photographs and had a white colleague pose as the homeowner, an action known as “whitewashing,” a second appraiser offered a value of $750,000. The couple said that the difference in value — nearly $300,000 higher — came because the second appraiser believed that the home’s owners were white.

The couple shared their story with The New York Times, drawing the attention of lawmakers and other homeowners concerned about appraisal bias. Last March, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case, and Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who has made housing discrimination a priority, hopes to introduce a bill to end racial bias in home appraisals later this year.

The settlement, which their lawyers said was accepted in U.S. District Court in Maryland on Monday, resolves Dr. Connolly and Dr. Mott’s claims against loanDepot, which continues to deny any allegations of wrongdoing. It does not resolve their claim against the appraisal company and Mr. Lanham, who also denies allegations of bias and has countersued for defamation.

Mr. Lanham, when reached by phone on Monday, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In an emailed statement, Jonathan Fine, a spokesperson for loanDepot, said, “loanDepot strongly opposes bias in the home finance process. While we continue to deny the specific allegations in this lawsuit and have made no admission of fault, we’re proud of the commitments announced today, which will formalize many of our existing practices and provide additional resources to help our customers in the appraisal and review process.”

Throughout the legal process, Dr. Mott, who lectured on Black Studies, was battling Stage 4 adrenal cancer. She died four days before her 48th birthday.

Dr. Connolly said that he and his three children lovingly refer to the guidelines of the settlement as the SHANI laws — the Secure Home and Neighborhood Initiatives.

The settlement could have significant reach: loanDepot is the country’s sixth-largest mortgage lender, with offices in every state.

It is not the first such lawsuit alleging a racially biased home appraisal to be resolved in a settlement. But unlike other settlements that have resulted in only monetary damages, this creates a companywide policy overhaul, paving the way for other homeowners to challenge valuations that they feel may be biased, and even recoup equity in their homes that could have otherwise been squandered without recourse.

In addition to quickly offering a second appraisal when bias is indicated, loanDepot will also clearly communicate to applicants the right to request a review or adjustment of an appraisal, known as a Reconsideration of Value, or R.O.V., and ensure that any allegations of appraisal bias are escalated to loanDepot’s Fair Lending group, according to the settlement.

The lender has also pledged to keep applicants’ interest rates locked during R.O.V. periods so that homeowners who request a new appraisal or reconsideration of value do not lose out on the mortgage interest rate they were promised at their initial valuation. loanDepot will also overhaul its own training of staff on fair housing and fair lending laws, as well as the history of discrimination in American real estate; and is pledging to sever ties with any appraisers who are found to show indications of bias in their work.

John Relman, one of the lawyers representing Dr. Connolly and Dr. Mott, said he hopes the changes at loanDepot will become a blueprint for other mortgage companies to follow.

“Nobody had done this before with respect to the reconsideration of value,” he said. “Nathan and Shani very much wanted to get best practices in place that others could follow. And loanDepot, to their credit, was willing to not just talk the talk but walk the walk.”

Dr. Mott, a scholar of literature and Africana studies whose work focused on the intersection of race and popular culture, was determined to use their experience to force change in the mortgage process, said Dr. Connolly, a professor of history and an expert on redlining and the legacy of white supremacy in America.

She entered hospice care in January and used a wheelchair and an oxygen tank, but on March 1, less than two weeks before her death, she gave an eight-hour deposition in the case, said Dr. Connelly, 46. She dissected the nation’s landmark Fair Housing laws, and how the history of both property rights and the mortgage industry are inextricably bound to the racial wealth gap in the United States. She abstained from her pain medication for the entire day to keep her mind clear, Dr. Connelly said.

“We were coming to this as students of American history and thinking about systemic racism and injustice,” Dr. Connolly said in an interview. “We hope this will ripple across the industry, and in that sense there’s a real promise in the future. I’m obviously saddened to a profound degree that Shani was not alive and well to see this happen, and this will instead need to be part of her legacy. But what a mighty legacy it is.”

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