This week’s question comes from an individual who wishes to keep their identity confidential:
Q: “Chris, I’m a salesperson at a major corporation that puts tremendous pressure on us to meet monthly quotas. While not explicitly stated, the clear message we receive from management is do whatever it takes to meet your quota or you will be fired. I’ve observed other sales representatives repeatedly lie to customers to close deals. Their supervisors do nothing when customers complain. I want to quit my job, but I also can’t stand what the company is doing to its customers. I read about the verdict you obtained for a person in a similar situation. What should I do?”
A: Thank you for your message. Yes, the case I tried recently with local attorney Anne Costin raised similar issues. It was our honor to represent plaintiff Trish Williams, a former Wyndham Vacation Ownership timeshare sales representative, who was wrongfully terminated for reporting timeshare fraud on the elderly. WVO is the world’s largest timeshare company. The case was tried before a San Francisco jury that returned a $20 million verdict for Williams for her lost earnings, emotional distress and punitive damages. Now, more than ever, it is important for everyday people to speak out against consumer fraud and injustice and, as in Williams’ case, to protect the elderly from financial abuse.
In 2010, Williams reported that elderly customers were being defrauded by WVO salespeople who were opening and maxing out credit cards without their knowledge and lying about reducing interest rates, maintenance fees and the ability to obtain rental income from their timeshares. Williams also disclosed an illegal, industry-wide practice of falsely representing that if owners spend enough money — often hundreds of thousands of dollars — WVO would buy back the timeshare at full value.
Evidence presented at trial revealed that WVO employees engaged in “pitching heat,” high-pressure sales tactics involving deliberate misrepresentations to get people to buy more timeshare “points.” This included “TAFT” days — “Tell Them Any F—ing Thing” days — during which employees were encouraged to say anything to make a sale, as long as they didn’t put it in writing. The highest selling sales agent said, “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 WVO has good lawyers.”
For six long years, Williams and her attorneys battled Wyndham’s well-funded army of lawyers. So why did she do this?
“I want to say to others that know people are being cheated by their employers: Have the courage to stand up and protect others and let a jury hear the facts,” Williams said. “It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.”
My advice for you is to speak out against the fraud. We all aspire to live in a just and fair society. If your company has an internal complaint or ethics line, that is the place to start. Also send it to the head of human resources so the company can’t deny receiving the complaint. Be specific in your complaint. Stick to the facts that you have observed or have direct knowledge of. Keep copies of all documents proving the fraud as well as all communications you engage in.
I also suggest that you report this to an outside regulatory agency. It might be the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, local police, a labor commissioner or another appropriate agency. Send us an email if you need help in identifying the proper agency.
I recognize that the decision to report fraudulent or criminal activity by your employer is a difficult one, and, unfortunately, retaliation against whistleblowers is common. However, both federal and California law have express provisions that encourage whistleblowers to step forward and protect them from retaliation.
In the Williams case, two claims were brought against Wyndham under California law: whistleblower retaliation in violation of California Labor Code section 1102.5; and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The jury found for Williams on both claims.
I hope the company handles your complaint promptly, thoroughly and fairly. If that does not occur, seek legal advice from a trial attorney experienced in whistleblower law. An attorney can advise you on how to proceed with blowing the whistle while protecting your job.