On March 31, the FTC and Illinois State Attorney General announced a settlement of charges against a large, multistate auto dealer that allegedly discriminated against black consumers and included illegal junk fees for unwanted “add-ons” in customers’ bills.

Citing violations under the FTC Act, TILA, ECOA, and comparable Illinois laws, the complaint alleged that eight of the dealerships and two general managers of Illinois dealerships tacked on illegal fees for unwanted products to customers’ bills, often at the end of hours-long negotiations. These add-ons were allegedly buried in the consumers’ purchase contracts, which were sometimes upwards of 60-pages long, and sometimes added despite consumers specifically declining the products.

In addition, employees of the auto dealership also allegedly discriminated against black consumers during the process of financing vehicle purchases.  On average, black customers at the dealerships were charged $190 more in interest and paid $99 more for similar add-ons than comparable non-Latino white customers.

The multistate dealer will have to pay $10 million to settle the lawsuit per the stipulated order, the largest monetary judgment ever required in an FTC auto lending case.

Putting it into Practice:  From FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter, the FTC appears poised to allege violations of the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair acts or practices in light of discrimination found to be based on disparate treatment or having a disparate impact.  Their statement discusses how discriminatory practices can be evaluated under the FTC’s three-part unfairness test and concludes that such conduct fits squarely into the kind of conduct that can be addressed by the FTC’s unfairness prong.  This joint statement echoes similar announcements by CFPB Director Chopra about the use of unfairness to combat discrimination more broadly (we discussed Director Chopra’s statement and updates to the CFPB’s exam procedures in a recent Consumer Finance and FinTech blog post here).

The size of the financial judgment in this case underscores the seriousness with which the FTC takes discriminatory practices in consumer credit transactions entered into by entities over which they have authority, which includes auto dealerships.  As the FTC becomes increasingly focused on enforcement of key laws to protect consumers against discriminatory conduct, companies should use these latest agency pronouncements as a reason to be on high alert for potential discriminatory outcomes in their business activities, even if unintentional.