Wells Fargo faces whistleblower lawsuit

By Richard Jones | Jan 11, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO — Wells Fargo is experiencing more fallout from its fake-account scandal.

According to California Labor News, a former branch manager has filed a lawsuit against the bank, alleging the bank fired her after she came forth with first-hand knowledge of alleged illegal sales tactics employed by the bank.

Diana Duenas-Brown of Somona, California filed a federal lawsuit in December in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. As previously reported in The Northern California Record, Duenas-Brown was fired in March 2015 for reporting that Wells Fargo engaged in fraudulent and deceptive practices against its consumers. After Duenas-Brown reported the activity, she began to be harassed by her supervisor. Her lawsuit claims wrongful termination and retaliation.

Duenas-Brown was a Wells Fargo employee for 14 years.

Wells Fargo has come under scrutiny during the past year as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused the bank of opening more than 2 million bank and credit accounts without customers' knowledge starting in 2011. Wells later told CNN Money in September 2016 that it had terminated more than 5,000 employees in the aftermath of the allegations.

Wells Fargo responded to Duenas-Brown's allegations saying it has zero tolerance for any workplace harassment.

Ingrid Evans, a founding partner at the Evans Firm Inc. in San Francisco, told The Northern California Record that despite Wells Fargo’s firing of thousands of workers related to the allegations, employers are becoming more aggressive in fighting whistleblower retaliation claims.

“Employers will try to go after whistleblowers for blowing the whistle especially if they are in possession of confidential material,” she said. “Whistleblowers are an important part of our democratic process to protect consumers. The fact they may have confidential material should not be able to be used against them.”

Evans said Duenas-Brown claim also faces the hurdle that California law does not actually ban abusive conduct in the workplace. In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2053, which added new requirements for employers regarding training and the implantations of training programs to prevent abuse.

But while the law does require employers with more than 50 employees to provide training, it still does not statutorily ban abusive conduct in the workplace. It also does not require those same employers to create a definitive process for employees who have come forward and alleged abusive workplace conduct.

“Any type of conduct that is harassing or verging on something that might be illegal should come under scrutiny under California law,” Evans said. “There are some laws in California for illegal fraudulent and unfair business practices, and it would be nice to see unfair and fraudulent practices such as harassment and retaliation given added strength so there aren’t quite as many requirements for proving those cases.”

Evans pointed out that California law does address many forms of abusive conduct under other statutes, such as sexual harassment and discrimination laws.

Evans said she is not sure what a Donald Trump administration would mean for whistleblowers and whistleblower protections, but is willing to reserve judgment.

“I don't know if anyone can anticipate what is going to happen,” she said. “I don't think anyone can guess, but I certainly hope people are continued to be protected by the law.”

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