Wells Fargo (Photo: Wells Fargo via AP)

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter

A Black real estate developer from Baltimore is the latest person to formally accuse Wells Fargo of fostering a climate of systemic racism, creating an experience for some of its patrons known as “banking while Black.” And that real estate developer, Ernst Valery is engaging a class action lawsuit against the bank and encouraging others to join him.

Valery, who is founder and president of Ernst Valery Investments (EVI), has successfully invested in and developed real estate in Maryland, Washington, D.C, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California and New York. In the class action against Wells Fargo, Valery claims the bank refused to deposit his $3 million check. The complaint and demand for a jury trial has been filed in the United States District Court of Northern California on behalf of Valery by Beck and Lee Trial Lawyers of Miami.

“Mr. Valery’s experience is just one more in a striking series of shameful ‘banking while Black’ incidents that have occurred at Wells Fargo branches in recent years, which constitute overwhelming evidence of systematic racism emanating from this banking institution,” said Jared Beck, managing partner in the firm representing Valery.

According to Valery, he and his wife visited the Wells Fargo branch at 5701 Reisterstown Road in Baltimore, which is closest to their home. But, he claims their attempt to deposit the check from the State of Maryland into their joint account was met with great resistance.

“…Instead of simply depositing the check and thanking Mr. Valery for his continued patronage at Wells Fargo, the bank manager emerged and proceeded to barrage him, in front of his wife, with a battery of interrogatives questioning his entitlement to the funds and his knowledge of what the funds were for, and then the manager affirmatively suggested he was not the type of person who should be allowed to possess proceeds in such an amount,” Beck said. Valery said he had been a customer at that bank for 20 years with multiple accounts under his name.

The law firm points to a news story published by the New York Times in June 2020, which chronicles several recent instances at Wells Fargo institutions. In April 2019, a manager at a Tampa, Florida-area Wells Fargo branch allegedly said the “N-word” to Benndrick Watson, a Black attorney who was attempting to open a business account for his law firm. In another incident identified by the Times, Claire Middleton attempted to cash a $200 check at a Wells Fargo branch in Atlanta in December 2018, when bank employees quickly accused her of fraud and called police.

The Valery class action is not the first racial discrimination lawsuit against Wells Fargo.

In June 2012, Wells Fargo was ordered to pay $175 million after it was discovered that brokers selling the company’s mortgages were discriminating against Black and Brown borrowers between 2004 and 2009. A U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division probe found that in more than 34,000 cases the bank charged Black and Hispanic customers higher fees and rates than White customers with similar credit profiles. 

The Valery lawsuit seeks “…Injunctive Relief and Damages Class of all Black individual bank customers of Wells Fargo,” according to Beck.

“It is a shameful remnant of an era in American history when Black people were considered property rather than individuals with the right to own property,” Beck added. “The time has long since come to put an end to this, once and for all.”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor