Jacqueline Huskey, a Black woman living in suburban Illinois, tried more than a dozen times to get help from State Farm after a hailstorm punched holes in her roof. Now, thanks to a broad study of how the insurer handles claims like hers, she has evidence indicating that her struggle is a common one for Black customers.
Ms. Huskey is suing State Farm, and the study is the basis of the lawsuit. It is the first of its kind to use company-specific data to highlight racial bias, which is difficult to prove.
The suit, which is seeking class-action status, also focuses on how State Farm’s fraud detection methods discriminate against Black customers when paying out those claims. Filed in Illinois federal court on Wednesday, it includes Ms. Huskey and hundreds of other as yet unnamed plaintiffs, and represents the insurer’s Black customers in six Midwestern states. All the plaintiffs had a harder time getting homeowners’ insurance claims paid out compared with white customers, according to the lawsuit, which may seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
“Our information from the survey told us that there was a problem here,” said Deborah Archer, the director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at the NYU School of Law, who created the study in partnership with Fairmark Partners, a law firm. The group chose to focus on State Farm because it is the nation’s largest provider of insurance to homeowners.
Ms. Archer said the survey showed that Black homeowners had to do more paperwork and navigate more interactions with claims adjusters compared with white customers before State Farm would agree to compensate them.
The study, which was conducted over the course of nine months in 2021, relied on YouGov, a polling and data analytics firm. It was inspired by a December 2020 report in The New York Times describing the difficulties that Black homeowners had in getting insurers to pay their claims, the researchers said.
The Times report noted that although plenty of Black homeowners had stories to tell about their treatment by insurance companies, the absence of publicly available data made it difficult to evaluate whether individual cases amounted to a pattern of discrimination — largely because insurers keep information about their claims secret.
“The section about a tight grip on data was something that was remarkable to me and something we were not aware of,” said Alexander Rose, the chief of staff at Fairmark, a two-year-old law firm in Washington focusing on civil rights and corporate accountability cases.
In response to previous questions about Black customers’ allegations that the insurer was discriminating against them because of their skin color, a State Farm spokesman, Roszell Gadson, said those claims did not “reflect the State Farm culture.”
Representatives for State Farm were not immediately available for comment.
Lawyers from Fairmark and a team led by Ms. Archer began work on the survey with more than 800 participants, seeking to show how State Farm treated its customers by the numbers.
The researchers looked at measurements like the number of interactions that claimants had with State Farm representatives, the length of time it took for a payment to be made after a claim was filed and the amount of extra paperwork that State Farm asked for before agreeing to pay a claim.
The findings, cited in the lawsuit, showed that Black homeowners had a significantly harder time by several measures.
For most white customers, the process typically took fewer than three interactions before claims were approved. White customers were also one-third more likely to have their claims paid out in less than a month.
The study found that Black customers were 20 percent more likely to have to talk to a State Farm representative on at least three separate occasions before having their claims approved. They were also much likelier to have to submit extra paperwork.
“Those administrative burdens are real and deeply impactful in peoples’ lives,” Ms. Archer said.
Ms. Huskey, 57, is one of the plaintiffs who says she experienced racial discrimination at the hands of State Farm.
Ms. Huskey, who lives with her husband in a gated community called Maple Brook in Matteson, Ill., for people aged 55 years and older, said her home was a place that used to fill her with, as she put it, “overwhelming joy.”
“We were looking for a place where it’s comfortable, quiet, secluded, where people can’t just come to your door and ring your doorbell,” Ms. Huskey said. When she first saw the house, she was attracted to the broad back deck, where she would later spend time relaxing in the sun, even on the hottest days of the year.
“It felt good,” she said. “It felt like you finally succeeded in what you wanted to do in life.” On June 12, 2021, hail from a summer storm broke the shingles on her roof, causing leaks in two of her bathrooms and her kitchen. She called State Farm for help. When a State Farm adjuster visited her home about six weeks later on July 22, 2021, he refused to climb up onto her roof to look for damage, Ms. Huskey said.
“It was kind of windy outside,” she said. “He stated to me: ‘Oh, I’m not going up there. I’ll just assess the damage that’s inside the home.’”
No one else came for weeks, despite multiple calls from Ms. Huskey insisting that the insurer send someone to inspect her roof. State Farm eventually sent a man who worked for an independent company but had been contracted to help. This second visitor said it wasn’t clear that the damaged roof was the source of the leaks in the house.
Ms. Huskey wasn’t satisfied, so she kept calling. State Farm bounced her around to different employees.
“Kyle, Keith, Ross, so many people I could hardly keep up,” she said. “It went on from June to October of 2021, and still nothing was taken care of.”
Since filing the claim, Ms. Huskey estimates she has had 20 to 30 interactions with State Farm. She and her husband, a retired AT&T technician, eventually paid $7,000 out of their own pocket to fix their home, which was defrayed only in part by the check State Farm eventually sent for $4,687.
Ms. Huskey’s experience echoed the stories of other State Farm customers whose claims the company has cast doubt upon and paid out only partially.
If the complaint gets class certification, it could include as many as 10,000 people.
The new research, the results of which are described in the lawsuit, also highlights that certain claims get singled out for greater scrutiny — not because of the direct involvement of human beings but rather because of the way the industry processes claims.
State Farm doesn’t handle all of the claims its customers make. Like many of its peers, the insurer relies on specialized technology companies to help process them. The lawsuit used the example of one such company, Duck Creek Technologies, to lay out how the system works.
In the case of Duck Creek, once an insurance claim is made, the company uses software from the artificial intelligence firm FRISS, which is based in the Netherlands, to flag claims for potential fraud. According to the lawsuit, FRISS gives each insurance policyholder a “risk score” by running that customer’s information through its computer programs, which analyze the language in the claim narrative as well as the customer’s profile.
Each score is based on elements like — as FRISS puts it — “demographic data about the neighborhood, such as the degree of urbanization,” crime statistics and data harvested from social media.
Representatives of Duck Creek did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Representatives of FRISS were not immediately reachable.
Far from removing racial bias from the process, the lawyers bringing the case against State Farm allege that FRISS’s methods are cloaking old racial discrimination tactics in a veil of technology.
“The term ‘urbanization’ is in the dictionary of dog whistles,” Ms. Archer said.
“When you’re looking at these algorithms and the inputs, it’s often the same poison in a different bottle,” she said. “We’re importing existing racism.”
The Times reported in March that claims that are flagged for potential fraud by State Farm are investigated by a special unit in the company, where a whistle-blower is claiming that managers have singled out Black neighborhoods as places were there is “a lot of fraud.”
Because Black neighborhoods are singled out for instances of potential fraud, Black homeowners have a harder time preserving the value of their homes, Ms. Archer said. Therefore, she added, Black neighborhoods continue to be devalued.
After her ordeal with State Farm, Ms. Huskey said she was no longer in love with her home. If another storm came through and caused more damage that she had to fix, Ms. Huskey said she would rather sell her home and find a new one.