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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Wells Fargo Turns to Arbitration Clauses to Neutralize False Account Lawsuits

The New York Times reports that Wells Fargo has been using arbitration clauses in its contracts with customers to defeat claims that the bank set up false accounts for customers:
Ms. Zeleny, a lawyer who lives outside Salt Lake City and opened a Wells Fargo account when she started a new law practice, said it would be impossible for her to agree to arbitrate her dispute over an account that she had never signed up for in the first place.
The bank’s counterargument: The arbitration clauses included in the legitimate contracts customers signed to open bank accounts also cover disputes related to the false ones set up in their names.
Some judges have agreed with this argument, but some lawmakers and others consider it outrageous.
“Wells Fargo’s customers never intended to sign away their right to fight back against fraud and deceit,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, who introduced a bill last week that would prevent Wells from forcing arbitration in the sham account cases.
Yet even as the bank reels in the court of public opinion, Wells Fargo has been winning its legal battles to kill off lawsuits. Judges have ruled that Wells Fargo customers must go to arbitration over the fraudulent accounts.
In dismissing one large case seeking class-action status in California, a federal judge ruled last year that it was not “wholly groundless” that customers could be forced to arbitrate over accounts they had never agreed to. That case is now being settled, according to legal filings.

An earlier report, also in the New York Times, details Wells Fargo's efforts to compel arbitration in a Federal District Court in Utah:

Wells Fargo has asked a Federal District Court to order dozens of customers who are suing the bank over the opening of unauthorized accounts to resolve their disputes in private arbitrations instead of court, according to legal documents. 
The motion, filed in the United States District Court in Utah on Wednesday, is in response to the first-class action lawsuit filed against Wells since it agreed to pay $185 million in penalties and $5 million to customers for opening up to 2 million deposit and credit-card accounts in their names without their permission. 
. . .

Mandatory arbitration rules inserted into account-opening agreements prohibit customers from joining class actions or suing Wells Fargo. Instead, the agreements require individual, closed-door arbitration. 
Mandating arbitration when signing up for financial products has become standard practice after a Supreme Court decision in 2011 validated the practice. But customer advocates say it improperly denies customers the legal protections of court proceedings, such as the right to appeal, and helps to conceal corporate misconduct from the public and regulators because the related documents and hearings are not made public.
Folks in the media seem to have an unfortunate aversion to linking to actual documents, but I did some searching and you can find Wells Fargo's Motion to Compel Arbitration in the Utah case here. You're welcome, dear reader.

Wells Fargo's position in this motion is that the Plaintiffs admit that they set up at least one account with Wells Fargo voluntarily. In doing so, they voluntarily entered into agreements that their disputes with Wells Fargo would be settled through binding arbitration.

Here is one example of such a set of facts that Wells Fargo sets forth in its motion:

On July 9, 2010, Sbeen Ajmal, a California resident and at the time a Wells Fargo employee, opened a team member checking account (x5671) and a consumer savings account (x6215). Ajmal signed the Consumer Account Application for the two accounts as the primary joint owner on July 9, 2010; Mohammad Nazir was listed as a secondary joint owner. (Declaration of Karen Nelson (“Nelson Decl.”) ¶ 26, Ex. 3-A at 3.) In signing this application, Ajmal confirmed the following: “I have received a copy of the applicable account agreement and privacy brochure and agree to be bound by them… . I also agree to the terms of the dispute resolution program described in the account agreement.” (Id.; see also id. ¶ 26 & Ex. 1-G (March 2010 Consumer Account Agreement).) Ajmal further agreed that “disputes will be decided before one or more neutral persons in an arbitration proceeding and not by a jury trial or a trial before a judge.” (Id. ¶ 26, Ex. 3-A at 3.) Ajmal actively used her team member checking account (x5671), and had her paychecks directly deposited into the account. (Id. ¶ 27, Ex. 3-B.)
Another example references a customer who received a welcome letter stating that if his account remained open past a certain date, it would be governed by terms in the "Consumer Disclosure brochure." Among the terms in the brochure was an agreement that any "dispute" arising between the customer and Wells Fargo would be settled through arbitration. As for the definition of "dispute," the contract provided this definition:
[A]ny unresolved disagreement between you and the Bank that relates in any way to account[**] [emphasis added] or services described in this brochure [including] any claim that arises out of or is related to these accounts, services or related agreements. It includes claims based on broken promises or contracts, torts (injuries caused by negligent or intentional conduct), or other wrongful actions. It also includes statutory, common law and equitable claims. A dispute also includes any disagreement about the meaning of this Arbitration Agreement, and whether a disagreement is a ‘dispute’ subject to binding arbitration as provided for in this Arbitration Agreement.
[**NOTE: The quoted portion in the motion says "account," although it makes more sense if read as either "accounts" or "the account." Each alternative reading, however, significantly changes the potential scope of the arbitration agreement, as described in more detail below.]

Wells Fargo's argument is that the arbitration agreement in the accounts that the Plaintiffs admit to entering voluntarily apply to the dispute arising from Wells Fargo's alleged creation of additional accounts for those Plaintiffs without those Plaintiffs' permission. The Plaintiffs will likely argue that the scope of each arbitration agreement was limited to the account that was voluntarily created, and not to any accounts created without permission.

Wells Fargo's argument has merit because the arbitration provisions cited in its motion are generally quite broad. The bank can argue that once the customers created a contractual relationship with Wells Fargo, they agreed that future actions of Wells Fargo relating to the accounts or services fell under the arbitration provision in that contract. This argument is strongest under the terms of the contract described in the first quoted paragraph above.

But under the terms described in the second quoted paragraph above, Wells Fargo's argument might face more of an uphill battle. There, the "disputes" covered by the arbitration provision may be limited to the customer's account -- or to Wells Fargo accounts in general, depending on whether the term "account" is read as "the account," or "accounts." Based on the remainder of the quote and its context, it looks like the intended word was "accounts," which would strengthen Wells Fargo's position, but the quote as stated is ultimately unclear. If the Court reads the agreement giving rise to the account to extend only to Wells Fargo's actions in providing services under that particular account, the Plaintiffs will have a stronger argument, at least to the extent that the Consumer Disclosure brochure is the only applicable agreement.

The New York Times references some critics and lawmakers who are angry with Wells Fargo's strategy, but from a pragmatic point of view the bank would be foolish not to use these agreements. Arbitration agreements are supported by favorable Supreme Court case law, and because they can thwart Plaintiffs' litigation efforts early in the process. Whether anger by consumers and legislators over Wells Fargo's arbitration maneuvers is enough to prompt changes in the law governing arbitration clauses remains to be seen.

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