After Duke Tran escaped from slavery, but before he became a millionaire, he was a Wells Fargo employee.
He worked at the bank’s debt-collections center near Portland, Ore., talking on the phone to customers who owed Wells Fargo money. It wasn’t glamorous, but the job enabled him to afford a two-story suburban house with mustard-colored aluminum siding. After more than three decades in the United States, Mr. Tran felt that he was the living embodiment of the American dream.
And then it all started to crumble.
In 2014, according to Mr. Tran, his boss ordered him to lie to customers who were facing foreclosure. When Mr. Tran refused, he said, he was fired. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to make his monthly mortgage payments and that he was about to become homeless.
Joining a cadre of former employees claiming they were mistreated for speaking out about problems at the bank, Mr. Tran sued. He argued in court filings that he had been fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on misconduct at the giant San Francisco-based bank. Mr. Tran said he didn’t want his job back — he wanted Wells Fargo to admit that it had been wrong to fire him and wrong to mislead customers who were facing foreclosure.
It was a long shot. Banks generally are happy to reach private settlements, but loath to publicly admit wrongdoing, which can open them up to litigation. But Mr. Tran, who fled Vietnam as a teenager and then was enslaved by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, wasn’t daunted by long odds.
And so Mr. Tran, who is in his mid-50s and speaks English with a heavy Vietnamese accent and jumbled grammar, became the latest foe to take on Wells Fargo.
The bank already faced widespread condemnation from regulators, lawmakers and enraged customers for opening fake accounts and otherwise deceiving and defrauding its customers.
But the conduct that so unsettled Mr. Tran was not something the bank had previously been accused of; he was alone in leveling the accusations. He said the bank was trying to cover up the fact that it did not have the documents to prove some of its customers owed money it was trying to collect. To further his lawsuit, he opened his life to intense scrutiny, used vacation time at his new job to attend meetings and court dates, and told and retold the story of his experiences at the bank, which maintained that Mr. Tran had been fired for poor performance and that there had been no cover-up of missing documents. He would not go away.
“I have a story to tell,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “This is a true story. I blew the whistle. They all know.”
Captured at 17
Mr. Tran calls himself Duke now, but his name at birth was Tran Duy Duc. He was born in Vietnam in 1961, the son of a colonel in the South Vietnamese military fighting alongside American troops. Mr. Tran was 13 when, in 1975, the North Vietnamese took over the government and sent his father to a prison camp as punishment for helping the Americans. When released four years later, Mr. Tran’s father paid to sneak Mr. Tran over the Cambodian border.
“You have to leave,” his father told him.
As soon as he got to Cambodia, though, Mr. Tran was captured by fighters for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. They forced him to drink vinegar, believing he had swallowed gold and family jewels that the vinegar would help expel. Then they made the 17-year-old their slave, forcing him to dig wells.
“Sometimes the soldiers got drunk and took me out and put AK-47s to my head so I would pass out,” Mr. Tran said.
Eight months after he was caught, Mr. Tran’s captors traded him to aid workers who carried humanitarian supplies. He still remembers the items that bought his freedom: a kilo of rice, two boxes of canned tuna, two boxes of sardines in tomato sauce, antibiotics and some other medical supplies.
The aid workers took him to Thailand. From there, the International Organization for Migration helped him reach the United States.
“I am so grateful,” Mr. Tran said. “Here I am, an American citizen.”
His first job in America was scrubbing pots in a restaurant kitchen. Soon after that, he got his first call center job, in the payment processing division of a local bank. He said in an interview that he had worked in call centers for a total of 25 years.
In 2002, he began working in a call center for Wells Fargo’s collections unit in Vancouver, Wash. In March 2013, he transferred to another Wells Fargo unit, the home equity division, in nearby Beaverton, Ore.
Mr. Tran was proud of his work. In an interview, he described himself as “a really model employee” who got internal recognition at Wells for his good work.
The division was responsible for a portfolio of home-equity loans that Wells Fargo had bought from another company at the peak of the financial crisis in 2008. As the bank examined the loans in 2013, employees realized that Wells Fargo was missing some of the paperwork that proved the borrowers owed money to the bank.
Tom Goyda, a Wells Fargo spokesman, confirmed the existence of the problem. He said 120 of the loans had initially appeared to be missing their underlying documents.
Nine months into his new job, Mr. Tran answered a phone call from a Wells Fargo customer in Lexington, N.C. His name was Walter Coles.
Mr. Coles, who is now 88, had recently opened a letter that Wells Fargo sent to his wife, Jacqueline. He handled her affairs because she has Alzheimer’s. The letter said that Mrs. Coles owed Wells Fargo nearly $90,000 and that if she did not pay within 90 days the bank would foreclose on the Coleses’ house.
Mr. Coles had credit card accounts with Wells Fargo, but this was the first he had heard of any $90,000 loan. “I knew that my wife hadn’t taken out a mortgage,” he said in an interview. “My house was paid off 35 years ago.”
So he called Wells Fargo. On the phone with Mr. Tran, Mr. Coles asked for proof that his wife owed the money. Mr. Tran tried to pull up the Coles file on his computer, but he couldn’t find the loan documents. He told Mr. Coles that they were missing.
Mr. Tran started calling various Wells Fargo offices to figure out what had happened, he said. He consulted bank archives in San Francisco and Roanoke, Va., to try to find the documents.
“We were unable to locate the agreement. Document is not available,” a Wells employee reported in an email to Mr. Tran, which was reviewed by The Times.
Another employee responded: “We have tried all avenues to find documents but no luck.”
Mr. Tran talked to his boss, Peter LeDonne, about the situation. He said Mr. LeDonne had told him not to follow up with Mr. Coles. “They tell me: ‘It’s no problem. If the customer call back, you tell them it’s a balloon,’” Mr. Tran recalled, referring to a type of loan that would require Mr. Coles to repay the owed amount all at once.
Through a Wells Fargo spokesman, Mr. LeDonne declined to comment for this article.
‘Not Something We Would Share’
Mr. Tran wasn’t the only Wells employee to receive that advice.
In an April 2014 email to Mr. Tran and other employees, reviewed by The Times, a Wells Fargo manager, Cazzie Moreland, said that when the bank couldn’t find the documents proving a loan existed, “that is not something we would share with the customer under any circumstances.”
Mr. Goyda, the bank spokesman, said Ms. Moreland’s email was “poorly worded, but it’s one email that was part of a larger communication and training effort.” He said the bank didn’t want customer service representatives, who didn’t have access to all of the bank’s document storage systems, to act hastily.
“What we didn’t want was to have a customer call and to have the representative mistakenly tell them something,” Mr. Goyda said.
Mr. Tran said in his lawsuit that he had felt uncomfortable as soon as he had seen how Mr. Coles’s inquiry was handled. Mr. Coles was insisting that he and his wife had never borrowed any money in the first place. He was — reasonably, in Mr. Tran’s view — demanding proof that any loan existed. Mr. Tran said he had shared his feelings with his boss.
Before long, Mr. Tran said, he received another unsettling customer phone call. This time, it was from a woman named Nancy who said the bank had told her that she owed $165,000. She said she had not taken out a loan.
“She was really emotional,” Mr. Tran said. “She said: ‘I have all my children live in my home. I don’t have money to pay. Where is my children going to live?’”
Once again, the bank had no paperwork to prove that the borrower owed the money, Mr. Tran said. He said he had complained to his supervisor, Mr. LeDonne, and his boss’s boss.
“I told him this is a fraud, I cannot be a part of that. He got upset,” Mr. Tran said.
In a court filing last year, Mr. LeDonne said: “I had no knowledge that Mr. Tran reported or complained of what he believed to be an alleged Wells Fargo practice of deceiving customers regarding missing loan documents or other unlawful activities.”
On Nov. 12, 2014, Mr. Tran said, Mr. LeDonne called him into an office. A group of Mr. Tran’s superiors was waiting. They asked for his security badge and told him that he was fired. Mr. LeDonne and a Wells lawyer marched him out the front door.
“I’m thinking I’m going to die,” Mr. Tran recalled. “From the time they walk me out that door, I don’t have any backup.”
On the street, they told him that if he had any questions about why he was fired, he could call a number they gave him for a human resources representative.
He called the number. An H.R. person told Mr. Tran that he had been fired for failing to orally respond to a customer whose call he had answered.
Mr. Tran was mortified. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife, Ann, and their sons, Justin and Jimmy, that he had been fired. When they asked why he wasn’t going to work in the mornings, Mr. Tran said he was on vacation. When that excuse no longer seemed plausible, he invented another.
“I thought, my God, I’ve lost my American dream,” he said.
His wife worked in a dental equipment factory. She earned $17 per hour, and it was suddenly the family’s only income.
After three months of unemployment, in February 2015 he landed a call center job at U.S. Bank, where he still works.
Even with a new job, he remained angry about what he felt was his unfair firing. In June 2015, he sued Wells Fargo in federal court for retaliation and other claims. His lawyers argued that Wells had tried to silence him and, when that failed, fired him.
Wells Fargo tried, through standard court procedures including a motion to dismiss, to kill the lawsuit, to no avail.
Mr. Tran wanted to go to trial. He and his lawyers never specified how much money they wanted a jury to award Mr. Tran in damages and compensation, but they said in a court filing that it should be no more than $179 billion — a figure they knew was unrealistic. What Mr. Tran really wanted, he said, was to force Wells to publicly admit wrongdoing.
Wells Fargo’s lawyers maintained that the bank had fired Mr. Tran for poor performance. They claimed Mr. Tran never reported anything to his superiors. Court filings indicate that they hoped to use inconsistencies in his deposition to prove he couldn’t show when or how he had complained about the lost loan documents.
A trial was scheduled for last month in federal court in Portland. After years of discovery, the trial promised to dredge up unflattering information about Wells Fargo. The timing was bad: The bank was in the final stages of negotiating a painful settlement with the Federal Reserve, which would bar Wells Fargo from growing until it fixed its problems. The bank was trying to position itself as having moved past its era of malfeasance.
With the trial three weeks away, Wells Fargo asked to engage in mediation, according to Mr. Tran’s lawyer, Michael Fuller. Mr. Fuller told Mr. Tran that it was possible Wells Fargo would try to settle the case.
Mr. Fuller said in an interview in late January that he could not foresee Mr. Tran’s settling for less than $10 million.
Mr. Tran did not want to settle. He wanted Wells Fargo to have to admit it was wrong.
“They have so much money,” he said in a Feb. 2 interview. “They use that money to buy off the American justice system, and they never go to court.”
He said he was considering not showing up to the meeting.
“I’m ready to go to court,” he said. “I’m not going to settle.”
The next day, Mr. Tran settled. He stopped returning phone calls seeking comment.
People familiar with the settlement said it included a seven-figure payment to Mr. Tran.
Mr. Coles, the Wells Fargo customer who said the bank had spent three years trying to collect money he never borrowed, laughed when told of the settlement’s size.
“That’s good for him,” he said. “He hasn’t got anything to worry about now.”
Mr. Coles is still battling the bank. “I think we should be compensated for the trouble they’ve caused us,” he said.