Only in the la-la land of financial industry justice does stuff like this happen.
After suing Wells Fargo & Co. for alleged fraud, invasion of privacy and other claims related to the bank's highly publicized unauthorized accounts scandal this autumn, a group of 80 customers who are seeking class status got this message late last month:
We'll see you in arbitration.
Like other banks, Wells demands that customers agree to give up their rights to sue in court when they open accounts. And like other banks, when customers flout that agreement and sue anyway, Wells files court papers demanding arbitration.
Unlike other banks, though, Wells in this case is an operation that has been outed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for outrageous law-breaking -- opening as many as 2 million phony accounts without customers' permission. In the process, Wells exposed consumers to credit rating problems and fees for products they'd never asked for.
In a television commercial that began airing in late October, the bank expressed contrition. "Wells Fargo is making changes to make things right," the voice-over promised. "We're taking action."
That recent action in court isn't exactly making things right for the customers who sued.
On Nov. 23, the dishonored bank filed a motion to force its victims to stick to their word and honor the contract requiring arbitration. In Wells' world, playing by the rules is apparently only expected of the customer. Wells spokesman Jack Grone said the company declined to comment.
If it wins, Wells will corral its victims into hearings before the American Arbitration Association, the forum it specified in its customer agreements.
The fight got me wondering how Wells fares in the closed-door arbitration world it insists upon for disputes. An AAA database shows that Wells prevailed in 28 consumer-initiated disputes decided by arbitrators since summer of 2012 and consumers prevailed in seven. Total awards to Wells were $998,932. Consumers won $408,286.
But AAA, whose arbitrators are drawn from the legal and business communities, doesn't give details about the allegations or profiles of aggrieved consumers. To get a more granular look at the outcomes of its arbitration disputes with customers, I looked at another forum that Wells uses regularly -- the dispute resolution arm of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as Finra.
Disputes at Finra involve complaints against brokers and their firms, and are heard by a combination of securities industry professionals and so-called "public" arbitrators who come from the ranks of lawyers, doctors, teachers and engineers, among others. (Investors have the option of requesting an all-public panel.)
I found 44 customer cases against the bank published by Finra between the first of the year and Nov. 25. Wells won 12 and lost 10, for a win rate of 55 percent. The balance either ended in settlements or involved brokers who were seeking expungement of a case from their public records.
Before you get too excited about those 10 customers who won, keep in mind that "wins" can be puny. In one case, an investor who claimed $525,000 in losses received $5,987. In another, a customer who said she'd lost $22,665 was awarded $2,500.
Some customers did well. One investor who said his broker didn't sell his securities on a timely basis wound up with a full reimbursement of $74,000 plus punitive damages of $187,000. Another got a $317,000 award after a broker allegedly allowed the client's former wife to illegally withdraw that amount from his account.
That case where only $5,987 was awarded despite a claim of $525,000 in losses was a doozy. A dissenting arbitrator ripped into Wells Fargo for its shoddy oversight of the joint account of an elderly South Carolina couple.
According to court papers, a Wells broker had set up a joint IRA for the couple in November 2009, six months after the husband had been diagnosed with dementia. The wife subsequently drained the account with the assistance of the broker, a court filing alleged.
Arbitrator Dana Tait Sandlin said in her dissent in October that there wasn't "one piece of evidence of supervision of the case files" of the couple's broker by any Wells supervisor. Had proper supervision been in place, the husband's medical deficits might have been detected, she wrote.
The case had originally been filed in court by the estate of the husband, who died in 2012, but Wells prevailed in a court battle to move it to arbitration. In court papers, the estate had alleged that Wells and one of its brokers fraudulently induced the husband to open and fund the joint account with his wife, who subsequently liquidated the account for her "fraudulent use."
In press releases, articles and public appearances, Wells has made much of its concernfor the plight of elderly investors - and its policies to watch out for them. Indeed, it's considered an industry leader on the issue.
In 2015, it hit the road on a six-city cross-country bus tour to educate communities on spotting and preventing financial crimes against seniors. The big, red-and-gold bus, emblazoned with the words "On the road to end elder financial abuse," pulled into Philadelphia for its kickoff event on July 14, 2015.
Wells talks the talk on elders, yet several of the largest claims against it in Finra cases published this year have involved seniors. One elderly woman wired $800,000 out of her Wells account into what turned out to be a fraudulent international lottery scheme. She argued that the bank and her broker had not properly monitored the account, but Wells won.
Another senior citizen settled a case for $100,000 after initially seeking $750,000 in damages. Finra's database says he alleged financial elder abuse, fraud and negligence, but provided little detail as to exactly went on in the account.
Along with settlements and arbitrator decisions involving Wells this year, there also were a number of requests by brokers seeking to have their records expunged of allegations. When brokers are successful in their efforts to expunge, it deprives the public of information about possible red flags.
Among the 44 cases were 45 requests for expungement. (In several cases, two or more brokers were asking for the relief.) Thirty brokers prevailed in their requests to have their records wiped clean. Only 15 were told they had to leave their black mark on their records.
Financial companies and their lobbyists spend a lot of time talking about what a terrific, fair system arbitration is for the public. I'd love to have the chance to sit through some of those hearings and report back to you on how fair or unfair it might be. But reporters are not welcome.