Tribe sues Wells Fargo Bank in federal court
FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation is suing Wells Fargo Bank for allegedly using unfair and deceptive banking practices to prey and pressure tribal members into opening accounts.
The lawsuit also alleges the banking institution deceived the tribe and its members, who entrusted the company with finances and personal information, by opening multiple accounts without authorization.
It alleges the fraudulent activities occurred in Wells Fargo locations in Shiprock and in Chinle, Kayenta, Tuba City and Window Rock in Arizona.
The suit further alleges unfair practices also occurred in branches in towns near the reservation, including Bloomfield, Farmington and Gallup.
The 59-page complaint was filed on behalf of the tribe by attorneys from Hueston Hennigan LLP against the banking giant today in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.
The civil lawsuit also names as defendants John Does and Jane Does 1-10, whose identities are unknown to the tribe but served as agents or principals to the bank.
The lawsuit comes more than a year after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a $100 million fine against Wells Fargo for the illegal practice of secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts.
In a statement today, Wells Fargo stated it is aware of the lawsuit but "cannot comment directly about ongoing litigation."
The complaint states that former Wells Fargo employees confirmed that many of the unlawful practices occurred on the Navajo Nation and elderly Navajos were targets for such banking activities due to limited understanding of finances, technology and English.
"These individuals were unlikely to understand the difference between multiple accounts, making them prime targets for Wells Fargo's unlawful sales tactics," the complaint states.
"Elders were also among the least likely customers to have any legitimate financial needs for multiple Wells Fargo accounts, as they often had a fixed income and did not have computer access to manage different accounts," according to the complaint.
The complaint states the bank seized on elders' lack of financial understanding and sales employees insisted that elders open various saving accounts to manage activities such as car payments, utility payments, food and other expenses.
Other targeted individuals include family members of bank employees and Navajo youth who sought to cash checks from summer youth employment programs.
To meet monthly quotas, sales personnel visited basketball games and flea markets on the Navajo Nation.
Tribal officials commented on the lawsuit in press releases from the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President and the Office of the Speaker.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said in the release from the tribal president's office the banking institution must be held accountable for its actions directed at tribal members.
"Among their other despicable acts, the bank specifically targeted our most vulnerable population – our elders," Branch said.
Delegate Seth Damon, who serves as chairman for the Budget and Finance Committee, said in a release from the speaker's office that committee members started investing the allegations after it was brought to their attention several months ago.
"We have had a business relationship with Wells Fargo since 1964 and if these allegations are accurate, we as the Navajo Nation need to reexamine our partnership with Wells Fargo and perhaps separate ourselves and work with a new trustworthy financial institution that will help move our people and our nation forward," Damon said.
In its statement, Wells Fargo states it continues to focus on rebuilding trust and building a better bank.
"Over the past year we have taken significant steps to make things right for our customers, including members of the Navajo Nation, who may have been affected by unacceptable retail sales practices," the company states.
Those steps include a $142 million class action settlement agreement, conducting broad outreach, free mediation services and working with customers to resolve issues through a complaint process.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at email@example.com.