Seven former employees of a Wells Fargo branch in Bluffton have lodged a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seeking to sue the bank for alleged unlawful termination.
The seven are among nine of the branch's employees fired on or about July 17. They were told they violated bank rules for soliciting new customers, according to their lawyer, John R.C. Bowen of Hilton Head Island.
The branch is at 11 Arley Way, near the Westbury Park community.
Josh Dunn, a spokesman for the bank's regional headquarters in Charlotte, said the bank is aware of the complaint to the EEOC but declined further comment.
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"We're looking at this as an internal matter," Dunn said, adding the firing of nine of the branch's 11 employees did not interrupt customer service.
The firings stem from the manner in which about 30 new customers -- foreign exchange students living in Bluffton -- were solicited this summer, Bowen said. Their accounts were arranged by the branch's manager and another banker at an off-site location, Bowen said.
The new customers' information was then relayed to the branch's tellers, who completed paperwork, then received credit toward their quota for new accounts. Bowen said the bank's policy "typically" requires tellers to speak directly with customers before they can take individual credit for those accounts.
"This was not a typical situation," he said.
But the bank considered it unethical for the tellers to take credit for the new accounts, according to Bowen. Employees were interviewed individually by bank investigators and coerced into signing self-incriminating statements without the benefit of legal representation -- possibly a civil-rights violation, he added.
A letter submitted Aug. 13 by branch team leader Deborah Govan to the EEOC says the firings have had a profound financial and personal impact on her former co-workers.
"The loss of personal and professional reputation in a community as small as ours is indeed serious," it reads. "Not only has it required us to defend our reputations in the community, but it has made it exponentially difficult for us to find any other employment."
The letter seeks to obtain a "right to sue" letter from the EEOC's regional office in Savannah, which Hilton Head attorney Patrick W. Carr, who is not involved in the dispute, said is a mandatory precursor to litigation in such cases.
He added it could take more than a year for the EEOC to review and issue a judgment on the letter's request.
The letter is co-signed by Erin Caldwell, LaTeshia L. Barnwell, Zylthia Atkins, Gregory Cherewko, Linda A. Gillet and Maria Olivia Dulaney, most of whom were tellers at the branch.
"These are very nice, real people whose lives have been turned upside-down," Bowen said.