Baltimore developer Ernst Valery, a Black business owner who specializes in minority neighborhoods, affordable housing and multifamily complexes, has filed a class-action lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank, alleging racial discrimination at a Maryland branch near his home.
A Haitian-born immigrant who came to the United States as a boy, Valery serves as founder and president of the SAA | EVI affiliate Ernst Valery Investments Corp. and has a real estate footprint in Maryland, as well as Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; Virginia; California, and New York. He also serves on Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s transition team for housing and neighborhood development and has spearheaded Aequo, an investment fund specifically for minority candidates to launch real estate projects.
But Valery said his resume and long list of accomplishments proved meaningless in October, when he went with his wife to deposit a $3 million check signed by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
In the complaint, Valery alleges that a Wells Fargo bank manager refused to deposit the money, and “affirmatively suggested he was not the type of person who should be allowed to possess proceeds in such an amount.”
Valery left the bank without depositing the funds, despite having multiple accounts and a yearslong relationship with Wells Fargo. The $3 million check was a payment from the state in connection with a historic tax credit that had been awarded to Valery for the church redevelopment, as well as the Ministry Lofts housing project, which created apartments out of the church’s former schoolhouse.
“They took away my dignity when they did that — I wasn’t a person anymore,” Valery said in an interview Thursday. “The questions I got were undignified. The treatment was undignified. That’s what institutional racism is.”
Wells Fargo officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but told the Baltimore Business Journal earlier that it was aware of the allegations.
“While we cannot comment on the specifics of Mr. Valery and his customer experience, we did follow appropriate procedures for his deposit,” Wells Fargo told the Business Journal in a statement. “He is a valued customer and we hope to resolve this matter with him. We take all allegations of discrimination seriously.”
The situation follows a heated summer of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Advocates and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement have called for the elimination of systemic racism in policy, education, criminal justice and hiring, among other channels.
Valery said he felt obligated to turn to the courts out of a sense of duty to his children.
“Someone has to take a stand to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ This country is better when we’re all at a level playing field,” Valery said. “We’re so good at getting the PR machine going. But we have to look under the hood and look at the processes.”
Valery’s attorneys, Elizabeth Lee Beck, Jared Beck and Victor Arca from Miami-based Beck & Lee, contend in the complaint that if Valery had been white, or gone to a branch in a more affluent ZIP code, he would have been able to deposit the check that day.
“Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the instant action concerns yet another despicable and outrageous instance of ‘banking while Black’ at Wells Fargo,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint, referring to a recent New York Times article detailing four instances of racial profiling at Wells Fargo branches across the country. “There are only two factors which caused Mr. Valery to leave Wells Fargo that day unable to deposit his own funds in his own bank account ... Those two factors are (1) the color of Mr. Valery’s skin; and (2) the racism of Wells Fargo.”
The suit cites two prior cases against Wells Fargo: In 2012, the bank paid $175 million to resolve claims brought by the U.S. Department of Justice that it charged Black and Hispanic people higher rates and fees on mortgages. And in August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city of Oakland, California, which claimed that Well Fargo’s discriminatory lending practices to Black and minority customers caused diminished property tax revenues to the city, in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Valery and his legal team are seeking monetary damages and an injunction, or an immediate end to the discriminatory practices alleged. It also asks for the court to notify every Black banking customer of Wells Fargo of opportunities to obtain damages or restitution.
Elizabeth Lee Beck said people already have reached out about joining the class action. The court will have to grant the firm permission to conduct an investigation before it decides what type of injunction to request, she said. It’s not clear that the court will do so.
“I’ve had extremely meritorious cases thrown out before, but I have hope,” she said. “This case isn’t about him personally. What’s going on here is something systemic. A lot of the civil rights in this country have been won and fought in civil court.”
Valery said the case could have nationwide implications and change the way bank employees interact with minority customers.
“People of color haven’t finished fighting for their rights to be treated equally,” he said. “For all the people who have gone through this at Wells Fargo and banks like Wells Fargo, it won’t stop until we take legal action.”