On July 7, 2004, M&S, along with co-counsel, initiated a ground-breaking class action lawsuit against John Hancock Life Insurance for its company-wide policy of rarely selling life insurance to African Americans in the early to mid-20th century. The named Plaintiff was an African American woman whose mother had purchased life insurance policies from John Hancock in the 1940s and 1950s. The lawsuit also confronted John Hancock’s practice of offering African Americans substandard and seriously inferior life insurance products when it did sell insurance to African Americans. The policies offered to African Americans are known as industrial or monthly debit policies and had little value.
The lawsuit further alleged that John Hancock fraudulently concealed its practices from policy holders and from the public and that the plaintiff and the class were only recently able to discover the discrimination even though it occurred long in the past.
On August 21, 2009, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut granted final approval of a $24.4 million race discrimination class action settlement with John Hancock Life Insurance Company, resolving claims of decades-old discriminatory practices in the sale and marketing of life insurance policies to African Americans. It was an extraordinary settlement that made fair amends for historic practices providing relief to those who were sold these products and giving a substantial amount of money back to the African American community.
Class members, defined as all African Americans who were purchasers, owners, insureds, or beneficiaries of industrial or monthly debit policies issued by John Hancock prior to 1959, were entitled to up to $1,200 per policy assuming they submitted valid claims as determined by the Special Master, retired U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon.
The settlement also had a large cy pres component. Over $15 million of the settlement was used to create the “Norflet Progress Fund,” named in honor of Ms. Merle Norflet, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Funds were distributed to organizations that benefit African American communities.
Noted civil rights attorney John Brittain led the committee that advised counsel and the court on cy pres distribution. The committee was comprised of leading civil rights attorney Theodore Shaw, Judge Nathaniel Jones, Geraldine Sumter, Charles Ogletree, and John Powell, and community advocate Deidra Ierardi.