Dear FHEO Family:
Previous installments of Profiles in Justice have highlighted cases involving discrimination on the basis of family status, disability, and race.
In this installment we highlight a case that is an example of a problem that has become more of an issue in recent years: women being denied mortgage loans because they are pregnant or on maternity leave.
This type of discrimination overwhelms and frustrates new and expectant mothers during what is typically one of the most joyous periods of their lives, and robs them of the opportunity to obtain the home they want for their growing families.
This profile on Jennifer Caviglia is one of these cases, and demonstrates not only the challenges this type of discrimination presents, but also the difference our work continues to make in the lives of women whose housing rights are violated.
The Case of Jennifer Caviglia
In May 2015, Jennifer Caviglia gave birth to her second baby boy. She and her husband, Ryan, were "over the moon!"
They were also prepared. Jennifer was on full-time paid maternity leave from her job as a fundraiser for a large nonprofit, and Ryan was a teacher.
To help cover the costs of home renovations the couple had begun and other costs associated with bringing a new baby into the world, they had applied for a home equity line of credit with Citizens Bank.
Jennifer and Ryan imagined they would spend the summer watching their newborn reach some of his first milestones and renovating their historic home.
But Citizens Bank put a road block in their path.
When the couple first submitted their loan application, before Jennifer started maternity leave, Citizens Bank approved it, but gave the Caviglias only a portion of the money they had asked for. The couple informed the bank of the mistake and Citizens readily offered to release the full amount of the approved loan as soon as the couple updated their pay stubs, which the couple did.
Their pay stubs were the same as before, except that instead of reading 'regular employment,' Jennifer's pay stub read 'short-term disability,' since she was on maternity leave.
In the days that followed, Jennifer received a call from an underwriter with Citibank, the parent company of Citizens Bank, informing her that the bank could no longer approve the Caviglias's loan because it could not accept her maternity leave pay as income.
"The underwriter called me and said, 'are you on maternity leave and are you going back to work?'" Jennifer remembered. "I said, 'yes, I'm on maternity leave and I'm going back to work but obviously not until the end of August.' And he basically told me that they couldn't count the income while I was on short-term disability, even though I was making the exact same amount of money. He said they could only count my husband's income and with just his income we wouldn't be able to afford the loan."
Immediately, Jennifer questioned the legality of the bank's decision.
"It didn't sound right. You know how your antenna go up when things don't sound right?" Jennifer recalled. "So I googled a couple things really quickly and saw that basically what they were doing is called maternity leave discrimination and that HUD had charged a couple of other banks with the same thing. I learned that it is 100 percent illegal. So I emailed the loan officer the next morning with a couple articles that had been written in national newspapers saying that what you're doing is illegal; do you want to reconsider? I thought maybe he just didn't know, maybe he was just having a bad day, whatever. He still said no. He said he talked to the underwriter and that they were concerned that I was not going to go back to work and that without me going to work, my husband and I were not going to be able to carry the loan."
But despite Jennifer's protests, Citizens Bank denied their loan, which brought the couple's home renovations to a screeching halt.
"They wouldn't write the loan until I went back to work and that delayed our home renovations until, ultimately, the following spring," Jennifer said. "That's because I went back to work in September, but then winter hit and we didn't wind up getting our house painted, or the stucco done, or the landscaping done until the following spring. It was just so aggravating because we had so much going on. Think about living with a newborn and a 3-year-old while renovating a home and then being forced to stop the renovation and live in an unfinished house for almost a year."
Deeply inconvenienced and frustrated, Jennifer filed a complaint with HUD alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and familial status in August 2015.
"I filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on sex because of course they would never have had this conversation with my husband," Jennifer explained. "When you have a conversation with a male, 'are you going to go back to work?' doesn't come up."
A few months later, in October 2015, Jennifer received a response from Tracye Barringtine in FHEO's Region III office, letting the couple know that we wanted to move forward with their case. Over the next few months, Tracye facilitated negotiations between Jennifer and Citizens Bank as they worked to conciliate the couple's case.
"It took a good six months," Jennifer remembered. "Citizens Bank kept making me monetary offers to get us to drop the case, and I would say no. And then they'd try again and I'd say no again. Finally, they made an offer I was satisfied with and we agreed on the terms of a Conciliation Agreement."
Under the terms of the Conciliation Agreement, Citizens Bank paid Jennifer $40,000, and agreed to provide fair housing training for its staff and adopt a parental leave policy. The bank also agreed to make a $75,000 donation to a HUD-approved fair housing or advocacy organization.
"We got a nice chunk of cash, which was really helpful," Jennifer said. "We paid a lot of the debts off that we incurred while we were renovating the house. But you know, even though we settled with them, the whole situation still makes me angry.
"Hopefully my case sends a message to financial institutions. Hopefully it shows them that they can't treat women differently. Women have babies all the time and then go back to work and it's something we need to be supported in and not penalized for."
I commend Region III's staff, particularly Tracey Barringtine, Rachel Leith, and Lindsay Huusko, for their patience, hard work and tenacity in helping the Caviglia family receive the justice they deserved.
Thank you again for all that you do, and I look forward to celebrating another real-world success story with you next month!