Activists Challenge Wells Fargo on Many Fronts at Annual Shareholders Meeting

April 27, 2017
Elizabeth Stork

Activists seized on Wells Fargo’s annual shareholder meeting this week to press the bank for changes to a wide range of alleged unfair practices. As the country’s fourth-largest bank, Wells faces backlash from a scandal involving up to two million accounts opened without customer authorization, as well as related allegations of employment law violations – including firing whistleblowers who refused to participate in fraudulent account openings. Activists mobilizing around the forgo Wells campaign, among others, have condemned the bank’s use of forced arbitration clauses in customers’ and employees’ contracts, which obstruct many of these issues from coming to light because they prevent employees and consumers from banding together and taking Wells to court.

In addition to criticism surrounding the alleged fraudulent account scandal, whistleblower firings, and forced arbitration, a recently filed lawsuit accuses Wells Fargo of widespread discrimination against private loan applicants based on alienage and immigration status. Specifically, the complaint alleges the bank denied loans to certain non-U.S. citizens, including those granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and Unfair Competition Law.

The original named plaintiff in the class action is Mitzie Perez, who is in her third year of an undergraduate program at University of California, Riverside. Perez holds DACA status and has a valid Social Security number and work permit. The DACA program, implemented by President Obama in June 2012 via executive order, allows young undocumented immigrants who arrived as children in the United States to remain in the country for two years and beyond, subject to renewal. To date, more than 1.3 million DACA requests have either been approved or renewed.

In August 2016, Perez used Wells Fargo’s website to apply for a student loan and could not proceed with the application process because she answered that she was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, even though she held a valid Social Security number and work authorization through DACA.

Since the filing of the original complaint on January 30, 2017, five more individuals have joined the case as representative plaintiffs. They include Andres Acosta, Sergio Barajas, Teresa Diaz Vedoy, Victoria Rodas, and Samuel Tabares Villafuerte. An amended complaint adding them was filed on March 6, 2017. The addition al representative plaintiffs are also DACA recipients who were denied student loans and/or other financial products by Wells Fargo because they were non-US citizens or permanent residents.

Outten & Golden, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), represent the six named plaintiffs and co-plaintiff California LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) in the lawsuit against Wells Fargo. Because of the potentially widespread impact of Wells Fargo’s policies, plaintiffs are also seeking class-action status so that the suit might include anyone in the U.S. who was denied a loan or financial product because of their citizenship status.

Denying a loan or other financial product to non-citizens is discriminatory, and illegal under state and federal law. It is particularly worrisome when this involves student loans, as this could severely harm the development of an educated workforce that is badly needed in the U.S.

This not the first time Wells Fargo has been accused of discriminatory lending practices. In 2012, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the bank worth over $175 million involving discrimination against African-American and Hispanic borrowers.

Leaders of the forgo Wells campaign have highlighted the bank’s history of alleged discriminatory lending, and have called on the bank to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the root causes of its fraudulent accounts scandal, eliminate forced arbitration agreements, disclose information about its lobbying, and disclose data about its gender pay gap, among other demands. The national day of action surrounding Wells’ shareholders meeting showcased the importance of transparency – of holding large institutions like Wells Fargo accountable not just to their investors but to the public, as these plaintiffs seek to do in court.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)