Wells Fargo wants a federal judge to dismiss a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in October by seven former employees of the bank's Bluffton branch.
Those seven people and two others were fired in July after the regional manager accused them of violating company ethics rules. The employees claim they were fired to cover up alleged cocaine use and sexual harassment by the Wells Fargo regional manager Scott Zardenetta.
The bank denies allegations of wrongdoing made in the employees' suit and says it did nothing illegal by terminating the nine employees -- nearly the entire branch.
The bank says the staffers were "at-will employees" with "no express or implied contracts," according to a 20-page response filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beaufort.
"All actions taken with regard to the plaintiffs were based solely on legitimate, business-related, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons and ... were not unlawful," according to the response, filed on behalf of the bank, Zardenetta, and bank investigator Chuck Owens.
The bank adds that the firings were "wholly unrelated to any alleged complaints regarding defendant Zardenetta."
John Bowen, of the Hilton Head Island firm Laughlin & Bowen, is representing the seven former bank employees. He declined to comment Thursday on the bank's response.
Jennifer Dunlap of the Charleston firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein is representing the bank, Zardenetta and Owens. She could not be reached for comment.
Zardenetta is out on medical leave. Owens lives in Florence County. Both are still employed by Wells Fargo, according to the response. Neither could be reached for comment.
The original lawsuit involves former Bluffton branch employees Deborah Govan, Erin Caldwell, LaTeshia Barnwell, Zylthia Atkins, Gregory Cherewko, Linda Gillet and Maria Olivia Dulaney. They were fired in July for receiving "credits" for opening new accounts that the Zardenetta said they didn't earn. He contends those actions violated the company's ethics rules.
They claim the procedures they used to get credits were used at other Wells Fargo branches. They say Zardenetta and Owens devised an excuse to fire them after Zardenetta's alleged misconduct was reported to the human resources department by Bluffton branch manager Mark Stroud.
They also say Owens and Zardenetta forced them into signing self-incriminating statements about how the credits were awarded.
In its response, the bank points out that the employees signed a form acknowledging that their statements were not coerced.
Stroud also was fired and is suing the bank, Zardenetta and Owens. He also is being represented by Bowen. Wells Fargo and the two other defendants haven't yet responded to that suit.
"Our statement continues to be that we made these moves after following procedures that our company has in place for these types of matters," Wells Fargo spokesman Josh Dunn said, adding that the company "take(s) these situations very seriously."
Because the initial case alleges civil rights violations, the bank wants the case to be heard in federal court.
Bowen said he has 30 days to decide whether to file arguments urging the case be sent back to state courts. No trial date has been set.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.
http://www.lowcountrynewspapers.net/archive/2012/08/20/story/fired-bluff... " target="_blank">Fired Bluffton Wells Fargo employees file complaint, allege hostile work environment at bank, Aug. 20, 2012