|Huntington Bank in Dearborn|
DEARBORN — The U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to dismiss a lawsuit against Huntington Bank for allegedly discriminating against Arab Americans by closing their accounts.
The lawsuit was filed in Detroit in July 2013 and tossed out by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen in March 2014. The Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision on July 24.
Nabih Ayad, chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL) and attorney for the plaintiffs, praised the higher court’s decision, saying that it is unusual for the Court of Appeals to reverse the decision of a district chief judge.
The higher court ruled that the legal complaint “contained sufficient factual allegations that, taken together, allow for a plausible inference that Huntington closed plaintiffs’ bank accounts because of their race or ethnicity.”
The appellate judges argued that the lack of alternative explanation to the account closures adds to the plausibility of unlawful discrimination.
“If there were a legitimate reason to close these accounts, such as a loan default or other dispute, Huntington likely would have specified it,” the court’s decision reads.
Ayad said he started looking into the closure after receiving complaints from the community several years ago.
“At every diner, at every lounge, at every gathering, I would hear over and over, ‘My bank is closing my account,'” Ayad said.
The ACRL investigated the matter and found that the Arab American ethnicity of the account holders was the reason behind the closure, Ayad added.
According to Ayad, more than 150 Arab Americans have come forward with the same complaint against the bank; 25 people are listed in the lawsuit as plaintiffs. He said the plaintiffs have are from different walks of life and include doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
He urged community members who have had their accounts closed to call the ACRL’s hotline at 313-633-0890.
Allegations of discrimination were solidified by a former Huntington employee who received quarterly lists of account closures. According to court documents, the former employee, who worked at the bank from 2008 to 2009, said the list included a large number of customers of Middle Eastern descent who had a good relationship with the bank.
The ACRL chairman explained that “paranoia” of Arab Americans’ financial dealings based on bigoted stereotypes led to the closures. He said, for example, if an Arab American business owner brings in a lot of cash, the bank would see the behavior as concerning.
“And he might be in a cash business or a party store owner.”
Ayad added that closing Arabs’ accounts because of suspicions of fraud or funding terrorism is as racist as kicking African Americans out of a gas station out of fear that they might steal something.
“You can’t put a whole group of people in a certain category and punish them,” he said. “This is discrimination.”
Ayad said the account closures inflicted financial and psychological damage on clients. He added that a businessperson might have 10 stores, where all operations are connected to the same account.
He explained that shutting down the account disrupts daily business and creates a stigma around the person.
“It hurts. It’s humiliating and embarrassing,” he continued. “This idea— ‘Am I less of a human? Am I less of a citizen?'”
Awaiting pre-trial dispositions and motions, Ayad predicted that it will be at least another year before the case goes to trial or is settled out of court.
A medical professional, who is a plaintiff in the case, said he received a letter out of nowhere from Huntington Bank two years ago, notifying him that his account would be closed in 72 hours.
“I was surprised,” said the plaintiff, who wished for his name not to be published. “I had done nothing wrong. They did not give an explanation. Why did they do this to me?”
He said he does not know why his account was closed, but suspects it was a part of a greater effort to target the Arab American community.
“What we know is that almost all people who had their accounts closed here were Arab,” he said.
The plaintiff added that the Court of Appeals’ decision to consider the lawsuit is a positive step to prevent discrimination in the future.
“But it will not undo the harm that was done to me and the community.”