People who say “I do” don’t get better auto-loan rates than unmarried couples, or the lender risks landing in court on discrimination charges.

The U.S. government is cracking down on such disparate lending practices, saying they violate the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

“Federal regulators are honing in on this,” says Chicago attorney Kenneth J. Rojc, who represents automotive finance firms across the nation.

The government cited Credit State Bank in North Carolina for an alleged pattern of lending discrimination based on marital status, he says. “I know of two other cases that are being investigated.”

A pivotal case, recently resolved, is U.S. vs. Compass Bank in federal district court in northern Alabama.

Without legally admitting it engaged in marital-status discrimination, Compass in a consent order says it will stop charging one loan rate for married couples and another higher rate for “non-spousal consumers.”

The government alleges the bank wrongly offered the two-tier rates through auto dealerships, charging one to two interest percentage points more on loans for unmarried couples.

The government says the bank sent 700 dealers in its regional centers of Birmingham, AL, and Tucson, AZ, rate sheets that “explicitly prohibited non-spousal co-applicants from involvement in certain loan programs.”

Those lending discrepancies sparked an investigation by Federal Reserve Board examiners. The court action and consent order ensued.

“The board found reasonable cause to believe the adoption of this pricing program and dissemination of the rate sheets constituted a pattern or practice of disparate treatment,” says a government legal document.

“The bank’s method of setting buy rates was not justified by business necessity and discriminated against consumers,” says the document.

Besides agreeing to end the cited lending practices, the bank says it will conduct annual equal-credit opportunity training to officers and employees involved in setting loan buy rates.

The bank also establishes a $1.75 million fund to compensate consumers who paid the higher auto-loan rates.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com