A federal jury sided today with Bank of America, which was sued by an Arab-American charity in Southfield that had accused it of discriminating against them when it closed the charity’s bank accounts.
In 2012, Life for Relief and Development in Southfield filed a lawsuit in Detroit against Bank of America after it had closed its accounts. Bank of America officials have said their decision was not because of the Arab ethnicity of Life’s leaders.
A six-member jury in U.S. District Court in Detroit decided in favor of Bank of America after a trial that took place in front of Chief Judge Denise Page Hood. Closing arguments were held today and a verdict was returned in less than an hour.
“We respect the jurors’ decision, but we’re obviously disappointed with the results,” Shereef Akeel, attorney for Life for Relief and Development, told the Free Press.
A spokesman for Bank of America declined comment on the verdict.
The case was closely watched by civil rights advocates concerned about the bank closures of Arab Americans and Muslims that they say are increasing.
During the case, Life officials and Akeel pointed to testimony by an expert witness for Bank of America who appeared to indicate in a 2014 deposition that Arab ethnicity or an Arabic-sounding name may lead to an account being seen as risky. Founded by Iraqi Americans, the charity often does relief work in the Middle East and Muslim-majority regions, among other places.
During the trial, Bank of America rebutted claims that prejudice motivated their decision. Their attorneys displayed a memo that said Life for Relief and Development had “unknown sources of cash deposits and unusual activity for a business account.” They also alleged that the charity engaged in structuring, which refers to when people deposit smaller amounts of money to avoid reporting them to authorities. Life officials said those accusations were baseless and that they had normal transactions for a charity. They added that Bank of America originally didn’t bring up the accusations of structuring.
Federal laws enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks have put greater pressure on banks to not have any money tied to terrorism, or else they could face potential liability and criminal claims. Arab-Americans advocates have said this has led to unfair closing of Arab-American accounts that have no ties to extremist activity. Similar lawsuits by Arab-Americans against various banks have been filed in recent years.
“The Arab-American community has been experiencing arbitrary closures of their bank accounts,” said Akeel.
Earlier this month, Arab-Americans raised the issue in a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was visiting Dearborn.
In 2006, Life had filed a lawsuit against Comerica Bank because the bank had closed it accounts after Life saw its office raided by the FBI. The case was later dismissed. In 2007, Life was federally charged with violating Iraqi sanctions laws and money laundering, but the case was dismissed in 2014 after an agreement was reached.
Bank of America officials and attorneys have said the bank’s investigation into Life that led to the closure started with an investigation into another, separate Arab charity, Syria Relief, that they said was in communication with Life. Life says their communication with Syria Relief was regular communication similar to what they have had with other charities and groups.
An ACLU report in 2009 said that Life for Relief and Development was one of several Muslim charities in the U.S. that had been unfairly targeted by authorities.
During the trial, Life employees and civil rights advocates such as Fatina Abdrabboh of the Michigan chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Imad Hamad of the American Human Rights Council in Dearborn attended on some days to show their support.
The CEO for Life for Relief and Development, Khalid Turaani, told the Free Press that “many of Life’s employees were … disappointed,” but the charity will continues its mission. The charity says it has distributed $300 million in aid in 23 countries and helped with Flint water relief this year.
This week, Life for Relief and Development is focusing on helping flood victims in Louisiana, Turaani said.
“Life goes on,” he said.
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