A group of Wells Fargo customers, including one in North Carolina, has filed a lawsuit in Wake County asking the bank to turn over the identities of employees involved in a nationwide accounts scandal.
Five customers are named in the suit, which seeks the San Francisco-based bank’s disclosure of addresses and names of employees who opened accounts without those customers’ permission. It’s a tactic intended to maneuver around Wells Fargo’s arbitration clauses that can block customers from suing for losses incurred by unauthorized accounts, said Lew Garrison, an attorney for the customers.
Once employee names are known, the plan is to then sue those employees, he said.
“This lawsuit is a first step to determine the identities of these people,” said Garrison, whose Alabama firm, Heninger Garrison Davis, is taking the lead in the case filed last month. Heninger is working with Greensboro-based law firm Crumley Roberts, which filed the Wake County suit.
“North Carolina has some severe penalties for people who commit a crime of identity theft,” Garrison said. “Without question, those people have violated North Carolina law.”
A Wells Fargo spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.
North Carolina is the second state in which attorneys are trying the strategy.
Garrison said his firm filed a similar lawsuit last month in Georgia’s Clarke County. In that case, one Wells Fargo customer is suing one Wells employee, who would represent a larger class of employees who created unauthorized accounts in Georgia, Garrison said.
In the North Carolina case, the plan is similar. In that suit, Ashley Lessa claims she opened a checking and savings account with a Wells branch in Wake County but noticed earlier this year a third, unauthorized account. The other four people suing in the Wake County case live outside North Carolina and include Wells Fargo customers in Alabama and Florida.
It’s another setback for Wells Fargo following its $185 million settlement last month with regulators who accused the bank of opening more than two million deposit and credit card accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers. Wells Fargo has said it has fired about 5,300 employees in recent years because of such behavior and changed its sales practices.
Since the fine’s announcement, the bank has been named in other suits filed by employees, customers and investors.
The North Carolina suit adds to the pressure on Wells Fargo over its arbitration clauses that customers enter into when they create an account with the bank. Judges have rejected suits filed by Wells customers affected by false accounts, because those customers agreed to submit disputes to an arbitrator when they signed contracts for legitimate accounts, Bloomberg News has reported.
A Wells spokesman has previously said it’s providing “free mediation through an impartial third-party” in cases where customers have received a product “that they did not want or authorize related to our recently-announced settlements.” The service is free, the bank said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said this week he plans to introduce legislation to block Wells from invoking such clauses with customers who were hurt by fraudulent accounts. Also this week, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton vowed to crack down on such consumer agreements used by Wells Fargo and other companies, calling them “fine print ‘gotchas’ to escape accountability.”
Testifying before a Senate panel last month, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf would not agree to quit enforcing arbitration clauses.