Ex-Wells Fargo adviser wins nearly $1 million in promissory note quarrel

Wells Fargo sought $76,152 from a former broker, but in the end was ordered to pay the adviser more than 10 times that amount

Feb 28, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

By Mason Braswell

Wells Fargo & Co. got more than it bargained for when it went after a former broker for not paying back his upfront bonus.

A three-person Finra arbitration panel denied Wells Fargo's claim for the remaining balance of $76,152 and instead ordered the firm to pay the adviser, Michael Hawkes, $925,000 in compensatory damages and attorneys' fees.

The case turned on Mr. Hawkes' claim for wrongful termination and represents a rare win for brokers in promissory note cases. Firms in such cases win around 90% of the time, according to arbitration data tracked by research service Securities Arbitration Commentator.

(More: Finra fines, complaints drop as market improves)

Wells Fargo claimed that Mr. Hawkes owed the firm the unvested balance on an upfront recruiting loan after he resigned from the firm in 2010, according to the firm's complaint filed with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. in February 2012.

But Mr. Hawkes countered with a claim that he was forced to resign based on false allegations that he had forged a client signature, according to his attorney, Melinda Jane Steuer of an eponymous law office.

Mr. Hawkes said that the firm was retaliating against him for filing a complaint about referral fees and that he had only corrected an account number on a statement and not copied client signatures.

He claimed the firm included defamatory remarks on his record, which is publicly available through Finra's BrokerCheck system, Ms. Steuer said.

The panel also ordered the expungement of the references to Mr. Hawkes' resignation and the allegedly forged client signature from his employment record.

(More: Finra agrees to dump expungement agreements)

The panel did not provide reasoning for its decision, but it denied Wells Fargo's claims on the promissory note and ordered the firm to pay $800,000 in compensatory damages and $125,000 in attorneys' fees.

“We're disappointed in the panel's decision and reviewing our alternatives,” Wells Fargo spokesman Anthony Mattera wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Hawkes, who is currently an adviser with Bancwest Investment Services Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., had previously asked Wells Fargo for an expungement in 2010, but the firm demurred.

“Michael was weighing his options about what to do when WF filed its claim against him,” Ms. Steuer wrote in an e-mail.

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