Seven former Wells Fargo employees have offered to resolve a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the bank for nearly $1.5 million.
The seven were among nine employees fired in July after a Wells Fargo district manager accused them of violating company ethics rules. The employees allege, however, that they were fired to cover up cocaine use and sexual harassment by the district manager.
The bank denies the allegations and says it did nothing illegal by terminating the nine employees -- nearly everyone in the branch.
Plaintiffs include former Bluffton branch employees Deborah Govan, Erin Caldwell, LaTeshia Barnwell, Zylthia Atkins, Gregory Cherewko, Linda Gillet and Maria Olivia Dulaney. They were fired for receiving "credits" for opening new accounts that district manager Scott Zardenetta claims they didn't earn, according to the suit.
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The employees contend the procedures they followed to get credits were used at other Wells Fargo branches. The suit says Zardenetta and bank investigator Chuck Owens devised an excuse to fire them after Zardenetta's alleged misconduct was reported to the human resources department by Bluffton branch manager Robert M. Stroud.
Stroud also was fired and is suing the bank, Zardenetta and Owens.
Four of the seven branch employees and Stroud initially were denied unemployment benefits by Wells Fargo, which said they were fired for cause. Caldwell and Dulaney did not file for unemployment. Barnwell was approved for benefits.
The others and Stroud appealed their denial of benefits, and each denial was overturned by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce's appeal tribunal.
The tribunal rejected Wells Fargo's claim that Govan allowed tellers to enter invalid sales referrals to reach sales goals.
"(Govan) has an exemplary work record and did nothing wrong in bringing about her discharge," according to the tribunal. "... The record is devoid of any evidence to support any finding to the contrary."
The tribunal reached similar conclusions in each of the other employees' appeals, including Stroud's.
Wells Fargo representatives did not appear at any of the hearings, according to tribunal records.
Govan, Caldwell, Barnwell, Atkins, Cherewko, Gillet and Dulaney have asked for a combined $1.48 million from the bank, Zardenetta and Owens. The amounts they seek range from $162,280 and $282,5000.
Financial awards could be reached with the employees collectively or individually, according to the court filings.
Hilton Head Island attorney John Bowen, who is representing the seven former employees and Stroud, said the settlement offers were based on salaries, benefits and bonuses each received while at Wells Fargo, plus damages for defamation and emotional distress.
If Wells Fargo, Owens and Zardenetta decline, the employees' case could go to trial. If a jury awards as much or more as the employees have asked for, they could be entitled to interest, plus the costs of litigation, according to Bowen.
Attorneys for Wells Fargo, Owens and Zardenetta have not responded to the offer, according to Bowen and court filings. They could either not be reached for comment Monday or declined to comment.
Stroud's case is pending in federal court.