Seven employees fired this summer from a Wells Fargo branch in Bluffton are suing the bank, claiming they lost their jobs after the manager of the branch blew the whistle on a bank executive's alleged cocaine use and sexual harassment.
Those seven employees and two others were fired in July -- accused of violating ethics rules by the same executive whose misconduct had been reported to the banks human resources department -- according to the suit.
The seven employees say they did nothing wrong and were following practices common at other Wells Fargo banks.
The bank fired them "to eliminate those employees who had knowledge of (the bank executive's) conduct or the HR complaint," and to punish them for the report to the human resources department, the suit says.
Filed Thursday at the Beaufort County Courthouse, the suit says the firings violated company policy, and seeks actual damages for the employees' lost income, lost health benefits and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages.
A Wells Fargo spokesman could not confirm Friday whether the bank had received the lawsuit, but said the company takes such allegations "very seriously."
"I can tell you that we have corporate policies in place for these types of situations," said Josh Dunn, a spokesman for the Wells Fargo's regional headquarters in Charlotte. "Our policy includes a thorough internal review before making employment decisions of the type being alleged."
Defendants in the suit are the bank, district manager Scott Zardenetta and company investigator Chuck Owens. The suit was filed Thursday by Hilton Head Island attorney John Bowen for former bank employees Deborah Govan, Erin Caldwell, LaTeshia Barnwell, Zylthia Atkins, Gregory Cherewko, Linda Gillet and Maria Olivia Dulaney.
They claim Zardenetta and Owens concocted an excuse to fire them after Zardenetta's alleged conduct was reported to the human resources department.
According to the suit, trouble at the branch, located at 11 Arley Way, began last April during The Heritage golf tournament. Branch employee Wendy Baxley showed Mark Stroud, the branch manager, and other employees a text message from Zardenetta that was forwarded to her. In the message Zardenetta suggested that he and Baxley's boyfriend -- a Wells Fargo employee in the bank's Sea Pines branch -- have sex with her.
"(Zardenetta) was in a hotel room in Hilton Head, had been using drugs, was in possession of an 'eight ball' of cocaine and . . . was proposing that he and (Baxley's boyfriend) both have intercourse with her," the suit states.
Zardenetta also suggested that Baxley's boyfriend bring another female employee from the Sea Pines branch to the hotel for sex, according to the hotel.
Baxley has since been promoted and remains with Wells Fargo. Attempts to reach her late Friday for comment at the bank's Okatie branch were unsuccessful.
Zardenetta is currently out on medical leave, an employee at the Sea Pines branch said Friday. He could not be reached for comment.
Stroud reported what he'd been told to Wells Fargo's human resources department "with the understanding that his complaint would remain confidential and that his identity would not be dislosed to (Zardenetta)," the suit says.
But soon afterward, Zardenetta "began writing negative personnel memoranda about Stroud, stopped coming to the Bluffton branch, and refused to acknowledge the successes of any of the staff."
The employees were told on July 17 they were being fired because of the way they received "credits" for new accounts they had helped set up. The accounts were for 31 Chinese exchange students who lived in Bluffton last summer. According to the suit, two tellers met with the students at their apartment complex and collected necessary forms and signatures. Those tellers returned to the bank and shared the students' information with other tellers, who helped complete the process for creating the accounts.
Employees are awarded credits toward monthly quotas they are assigned for bringing in new accounts. Bank's policy ordinarily requires tellers to meet in person with customers in order to get credits, but because of the number of Chinese interns, the situation "was not typical," according to the suit. The tellers were assured by Stroud that they could share the credits, the suit states.
The bank, however, considered it unethical for the tellers who didn't meet in person with the interns to get credits, according to the suit. Within days they were interrogated one-by-one by Zardenetta and the bank investigator -- Owens -- the suit says. During the interviews, the employees were allegedly coerced to signing self-incriminating statements.
Attempts Friday to reach Owens were unsuccessful.
On July 13, Stroud received a letter from Zardenetta indicating he was being fired for violating company policy for allowing the tellers to share credits for the 31 new accounts, the suit says.
Since the firings, only two of the nine employees have been able to get new jobs and none has obtained "comparable employment" in the banking industry.