In a news release issued today by OSHA, the agency announced an award of $5.4 million for a former Wells Fargo manager who was terminated after alerting superiors to potential fraud. The individual was dismissed from his job in 2010. He filed his complaint with OSHA in 2011 — justice is not often swift.
The case was handled out of OSHA’s regional office in San Francisco. I spoke to the top official in that office, Barbara Goto, who confirmed the award is the “single largest individual award” in OSHA history for a whistleblower case. The anti-retaliation protections for this individual are provided under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Specifically, an employer:
“…may not discharge or in any manner retaliate against an employee because he or she filed, caused to be filed, participated in or assisted in a proceeding relating to alleged mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, violation(s) of SEC rules and regulations, or violation(s) of Federal law relating to fraud against shareholders.”
The $5.4 million award covers back pay, compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees. Based on my recollection of news releases announcing other successful whistleblower cases investigated by OSHA, the awards are usually in the $200-500K range. The $5.4 dollar amount in this case is substantial for a couple of reasons. First, the individual was earning an above average salary and bonuses. Second, since 2010 he was unable to find comparable work following his illegal termination. That adds up to a substantial amount of back pay. OSHA also ordered that the individual be immediately reinstated by Wells Fargo.
You may recall that Wells Fargo was investigated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for setting unrealistic sales targets for employees. The pressure led some employees to meet their bank’s fee-generating goals by illegally opening several million bank and credit card accounts without their customers’ knowledge. The CFPB ultimately fined Wells Fargo $100 million; other agencies assessed an additional $85 million in penalties. The whistleblower subject to this OSHA investigation was likely reporting these shams when he was terminated from his job.
My inquiry to OSHA’s regional office in San Francisco was a breath of fresh air. There has been much disturbing news from Washington, DC, such as President Trump’s proposals to cut agency budgets and dismantle environmental and other public protections. It was terrific to speak to someone on the front lines of worker protections. They have a job to do and they are doing it.