Wells Fargo’s Whistleblower Problem – An Update

Last week it was reported that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) ordered banking giant Wells Fargo to pay $575,000 and rehire an employee it had dismissed in 2011. The employee, whose name wasn’t disclosed, had blown the whistle on the bank’s shady business practices, which included opening accounts in the names of their customers without consent.

Last year, it came to light that bank employees opened as many as 2 million fake accounts. After news of the scandal started making headlines, as many as 5,300 employees were dismissed. In April, the bank released the findings of an independent investigation in which it reviewed the scandal (with the help of a fancy law firm). The investigation more or less exonerated the bank and failed to find any pattern of retaliation against potential whistleblowers (big surprise).

But one has to wonder about the thoroughness of this investigation, particularly given the size of the settlement involving the reinstatement of last week’s whistleblower.

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What We Know About the WF Whistleblower

Though the identity of the whistleblower has been kept secret, it is known that she had been a branch manager in Pomona. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the unidentified employee had been dismissed in September of 2011 after reporting that at least three bankers under her supervision were “opening customer accounts, and enrolling customers in bank products without their knowledge, consent or appropriate disclosures.”

This isn’t the first time the DOL has ordered Wells Fargo to reinstate a whistleblower in response to the fake account scandal. In April, the DOL issued a press release announcing is had ordered Wells Fargo to reinstate a Los Angeles area branch manager who had been dismissed despite previously receiving positive job performance appraisals.

The DOL found that the employee was terminated after reporting separate incidents of “suspected bank, mail and wire fraud by two bankers under his supervision. The dismissal occurred in 2010. Wells Fargo was also ordered to pay the employee lost wages, attorney’s fees and compensatory damages totaling $5.4 million. Wowzers.

Basic Information Regarding Whistleblowers

In simple terms, a whistleblower is an employee who points out workplace violations of law, or non-compliance, to another employee or person with the authority to investigate the violation. We’ve written an extensive page on CA whistleblowers here.

There are a number of different laws, both state and federal, that protect the right of employees to call attention to unsafe or illegal workplace situations.

In California, Labor Code §1102.5 contains some of the main protections for whistleblowers. However, it’s not the state’s only whistleblower law. For example, Health and Safety Code §1278.5 was designed to encourage doctors, nurses, medical staff, and other health care workers to “notify government entities of suspected unsafe patient care and conditions.”

Both of these laws, as well as other whistleblower laws protect workers against retaliation in the event that they notify authorities about unsafe workplace conditions. That means it’s illegal for an employer to harass, intimidate or terminate an employee for pointing out workplace violations of law.

CA’s Whistleblower Laws Protect Bank and Financial Workers

Employees who believe they have been retaliated against for blowing the whistle on workplace violations often wonder which specific law might be used to protect them. Questions like this highlight the importance of consulting a lawyer when a person believes an employer has violated their rights.

Every case is different, and the specific facts will require careful review in order to determine if a lawsuit or complaint is warranted. However, the Federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act often covers financial industry employees. The Act protects employees of publicly-traded companies, as well as contractors and subcontractors of such companies.

The law states that employees can’t be discriminated against or harassed for assisting in an investigation into violations of regulations established by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The law even protects those workers who notify the authorities of activities that might not be illegal, as long as the employee reasonably believes the actions are a violation of law.

Consulting an Employment Lawyer

Whether you work as an analyst for an investment firm, or handle customer transactions at a local bank branch, if you have observed activity that you believe violates the law, your right to notify the authorities is legally protected.

If you have experienced retaliation as a result of whistle blowing activities, you should consider talking to a Los Angeles wrongful termination lawyer.

Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, you might file a complaint with a state or federal labor board, or potentially file a lawsuit. These are possibilities that should be discussed with a qualified attorney.

Workers who win whistleblower settlements may be entitled to back pay, lost wages, reinstatement of lost jobs, as well as attorneys’ fees. While workers who believe they have been harassed or discriminated against will often hesitate to contact an attorney, it could be worth the time and effort expended.

Employment lawyers in California typically work on a contingency basis, and consultations are often free. If you are a worker with questions about whistleblower status, contact an employment lawyer to help you stand up for your rights.

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