SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge has tentatively approved a $142 million deal to resolve claims over Wells Fargo’s unauthorized account scandal, despite objections that it lets the bank off easy.
The class action settlement in Jabbari v. Wells Fargo would release the bank from liability for opening an estimated 3.5 million fraudulent accounts and lines of credit from 2002 to 2017.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria granted preliminary approval to the settlement Friday after Wells Fargo agreed to kick in extra cash beyond $142 million if the deal fails to fully compensate bank customers for unwarranted fees and damage to their credit.
“Overall, the amount Wells Fargo is required to pay under the settlement agreement is significant, especially considering the apparently low degree of actual financial harm suffered by the class members as a result of the bank’s actions,” Chhabria wrote in his 18-page ruling.
About 2.73 million customers were charged an average $25 in fees for the fake accounts over a 15-year period, according to estimates cited in the plaintiffs’ court filings.
Plaintiffs represent a class of customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their names by Wells Fargo.
“We are pleased that the court found the settlement to be fair, reasonable and adequate,” Wells Fargo President and CEO Tim Sloan said in a statement on Sunday. “This preliminary approval is a major milestone in our efforts to make things right for our customers.”
Attorneys representing plaintiffs in separate but related class actions urged the judge to reject the deal, arguing Wells Fargo could be liable for much more, including up to $2 billion for state-law claims of identity theft.
But Chhabria found the plaintiffs faced substantial risks in trying to push forward with the litigation. He agreed that the plaintiffs could fail to win class certification or lose their appeal against the bank’s winning motion to compel arbitration.
“We’re disappointed he didn’t see it our way,” said attorney W. Lewis Garrison in an interview. Garrison, who practices out of Alabama, represents plaintiffs in four separate class actions against the bank, who had sought to intervene in the case.
“On the other hand, we think the settlement as the result of our efforts has been enhanced,” Garrison said, adding he will continue to monitor details of the plan to ensure “victims get full compensation.”
Before Chhabria gave his blessing, he demanded both parties let him appoint a settlement master if necessary to help evaluate the process for compensating those who suffered damage to their credit scores.
The parties also expanded the settlement notice program to get in touch with potential class members through emails, direct mail and Wells Fargo account statements. Additionally, they agreed to let class members provide more details in claim forms about harm suffered, such as increased borrowing costs, due to the opening of unauthorized accounts.
The judge also addressed arguments that a settlement would prevent further discovery that could expose more wrongdoing by the bank, but he found “the balance of costs and benefits” still weigh in favor of approval.
In September 2016, the bank announced it would eliminate sales quotas for credit cards and other banking products after federal regulators slammed it with $185 million in fines.
Wells Fargo also faces a shareholder class action claiming its board of directors breached its fiduciary duty by failing to stop the bogus accounts scandal that is expected to cost the bank billions in future lost revenue.
Attorneys for Wells Fargo and the plaintiffs did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Monday morning.
Wells Fargo is represented by David Fry of Munger Tolles & Olson in San Francisco. The plaintiffs are represented by Lynn Sarko of Keller Rohrback in Seattle.