Civil Rights

Wells Fargo alleges 'gamesmanship' by lawyer who sued after manager reportedly called him N-word

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A lawyer who sued Wells Fargo after a branch manager allegedly called him the N-word is engaging in “obvious gamesmanship” by trying to characterize an isolated incident as racial discrimination by the corporate entity, according to a Wells Fargo court filing.

The Sept. 22 motion to dismiss says lawyer Benndrick Charles Watson dropped allegations from his amended complaint about the now ex-employee apologizing for the racial slur and following Watson to his car.

The motion also notes that Watson didn’t include the bank’s apology letter—attached to his first complaint.

The letter says Wells Fargo was apologizing for “the mistake made by our former branch manager,” and the bank had taken corrective action. “Wells Fargo truly regrets what happened. It is unacceptable and contrary to Wells Fargo’s values,” the letter says.

Law360 has coverage of Wells Fargo’s motion.

Watson sued under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act for racial discrimination that impairs the right to make and enforce contracts.

According to his amended complaint, he visited a Wells Fargo branch in Tampa, F Florida, in April 2019 to open a new business account for an entertainment law firm that he was in the process of creating.

The first two employees who spoke with Watson were unable to help him, and both acted in a hostile manner, the complaint says. One employee went in to the branch manager’s office, then told Watson that he had to speak with the branch manager.

“Watson simply could not understand why he needed to speak with three people in order to simply open a bank account, and could not understand why the Wells Fargo employees were exhibiting such hostility towards him,” the lawsuit says.

Yet Watson “patiently once again explained to the branch manager what his needs were. As they sat there alone in the office, after a few minutes into their conversation, the branch manager looked at Mr. Watson and uttered the N-word,” the suit says.

Watson “was in fear for his safety—physical and financial—and felt that he had no choice but to immediately leave the bank,” the suit says.

Watson’s first complaint said the branch manager “tried desperately to get Mr. Watson to forgive or forget” the N-word incident and followed Watson to his car, “which only made the situation worse and intensified Mr. Watson’s fear and apprehension.”

Watson was able to open a business account at Grow Financial Federal Credit Union “shortly after his abuse and discrimination by Wells Fargo,” the suit says.

Wells Fargo counters that Watson had been a bank customer for at least 10 years with no problems, and he wasn’t prevented from opening a business account because he left the bank of his own volition.

Watson’s Florida Bar profile says he is an associate at Vernis & Bowling in St. Petersburg, Florida. His bio says Watson has directed, filmed and produced documentaries and owned his own entertainment label.

Watson’s lawyer, Yechezkel Rodal, told Law360 that Wells Fargo’s motion is “another sorry attempt to make Mr. Watson—the victim—out to be the aggressor.”

“Wells Fargo would have Mr. Watson just grin and bear it and provide his sensitive financial and personal information to the very person who used this most offensive of racial epithets,” Rodal said. “This may be how Wells Fargo views things, but it simply will no longer be tolerated.”

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