Last week, a San Francisco jury demonstrated that California takes the rights of whistleblowers seriously. Trish Williams, a former sales rep for Wyndham Vacation Ownership, was awarded $20 million in a civil lawsuit against her former employer.
According to a press release issued by the lawyers representing Williams, their client was terminated after she reported the company’s shady business practices, which included defrauding elderly customers through dishonest sales tactics. “I am grateful a jury of 12 people exposed the facts of this fraud and confirmed that I was terminated for standing up to Wyndham on behalf of the elderly clients they were ripping off,” Williams said after the verdict was handed down.
During the one-month trial, William’s lawyers presented evidence that sales reps maxed out customer credit cards, lied about reducing timeshare maintenance fees, and mislead clients about their ability to obtain rental income from timeshares.
Sales reps were encouraged to engage in a practice known as “pitching heat,” which consisted of using deliberate misrepresentations in an effort to get customers to buy more timeshare “points.”
There were even TAFT days, an acronym for “Tell Them Any F***ing Thing,” when sales reps were encouraged to tell clients anything as long as they didn’t put it in writing. One high ranking sales rep was quoted as saying “I sold my soul to the devil. I can say whatever I want so long as I don’t put it in writing, that’s why Wyndham has good lawyers.”
According to online news outlet SF Gate, Williams began working for a Wyndham vacation resort located in Virginia back in 2007, but transferred to an office in San Francisco in 2010. During her 63 days with that office, Williams reportedly complained seven times about dishonest sales tactics before being fired.
SF Gate reported that Wyndham tricked elderly clients, some in their 90s, into buying time share points by signing up for credit cards. The company would max out the cards without the clients’ knowledge.
Though according to court documents, the average fraudulent credit card bill was $52,000, Williams said she saw a bill for as much as $90,000. Because some of these customers had long standing relationships with the company, they weren’t reviewing documents they were signing, said Williams.
“A lot of these couples had been owners (with Wyndham) for years,” Williams said. “They were vulnerable.” The former Wyndham employee, who now works as a hostess at a grill in Virginia Beach, said she reported the alleged fraud to an executive, who threatened to fire her.
California Law Protects Employees Who Report Theft from Elderly
In California, there are multiple laws in place designed to protect workers. These include the Fair Housing and Employment Act, the State Labor Code, wrongful termination case law, as well as the Federal Civil Rights Act. There are various retaliation laws that protect workers.
For example, California Labor Code §1102.5(a) makes it illegal for an employer to enforce any rule that prevents an employee from cooperating with law enforcement, or another employee who has “authority to investigate, discover or correct” a workplace violation. Subsection (d) of the law further makes it illegal for the employer to retaliate against the employee for exercising his or her rights under the law.
Despite the fact that a jury awarded a large sum of money in the whistleblower’s favor in the recent Wyndham case, it appears that the time-share giant intends to appeal the decision. Adam Schwartz, a Wyndham spokesman said the company does not agree with the jury’s findings.
“The allegations in this case were isolated to a single sales office years ago involving a small group of individuals who are no longer employed by the company, and are wholly inconsistent with both our values and business practices,” Schwartz said.
Refusing to Settle
For her part, Williams said she wanted to go to trial despite having the option of settling. Four other Wyndham employees joined Williams in her lawsuit. However, all settled.
“If you don’t come before a jury, no one will ever know,” said Williams. “Everyone was trying to buy me off and shut me up, but I had nothing but faith for six whole years that this was going to turn out exactly how it was going to turn out.”
Wyndham Worldwide is the parent company of Wyndham Vacation Ownership. According to the company website, the vacation ownership division is the world’s largest developer and marketer of points-based vacation ownership products. The company claims to have developed a new business model in the time-share field, which utilizes “industry-leading sales and marketing expertise to sell vacation ownership interests.”
Please note: Mr. Robertson was not involved in this case and did not represent any of the affected parties. This article is simply meant to share the victory and explain CA law.