When one auto-financing legal dispute is settled, it seems another takes its place.

Accordingly, the next loan-discrimination battle may involve unmarried couples being charged different loan interest rates than married couples.

Some finance companies and dealers are adding two percentage points to car-loan interest rates for couples that aren’t legally married, says Steven Zeisel, vice president-senior counsel for the Consumer Bankers Assn.

It’s become an Equal Credit Opportunity Act issue. “You don’t want to have language like that nor a policy,” he warns.

Meanwhile, Zeisel says, the case is finally closed on 11 class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of African-Americans and Hispanics. They claimed several dealers and auto maker finance companies charged them higher auto-loan interest rates – up to three to five percentage points more – because of their ethnicity.

The suits were settled through consent judgments in which the defendants agreed to several stipulations.

“The cases were settled in the board room, not the courtroom,” Zeisel says. “Even if the finance firms would have won in court, they would have lost in the court of public opinion among minorities.”

The big winners seem to be the attorneys. “About $3 million to $4 million was paid out to lawyers,” he says.

Among other things, the consent judgments call for full contract disclosure in bold, 10-point type conspicuously placed above the buyer’s signature line. Borrowers are told auto-loan interest rates are negotiable and dealers have a right to receive a part of the finance charges.

The settlements cap dealer interest-rate markups. Caps range from 2.25% to 2.50% above the lender’s rate on financing that is 60 months or less; 2% over 60 months; and 1.25% to 1.75% over 72 months.

Each of the defendants also agreed to launch a diversity marketing initiative involving 300,000 to 875,000 pre-approved firm offers of credit to African-American and Hispanic customers.

Also called for is a monetary contribution towards improving customer education on credit financing.

Meanwhile, Zeisel warns that “way-over-the-top” cases of predatory lending are difficult to defend in court – or anywhere else.

He cites an egregious example of a woman “whose monthly loan payments were more than her monthly Social Security fixed income.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com