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$3.8-million jury award to Countrywide whistle-blower overturned

An appeals court overturns an award to an executive who said he was fired because he refused to lie for Countrywide and exposed unsafe working conditions.

February 20, 2013|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Winston, a former leadership coach for Countrywide Financial executives, won a wrongful termination verdict in February 2011 from a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury in Van Nuys. The suit named as defendants Countrywide and Bank of America, which acquired the high-risk mortgage specialist in 2008 and decided against retaining Winston. Above, Winston in March 2012.
Michael Winston, a former leadership coach for Countrywide Financial… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

An appeals court has overturned a $3.8-million jury award to a former Countrywide Financial Corp. human resources executive who contended he was fired because he refused to lie for the giant home lender and exposed unsafe working conditions.

Michael Winston, a former leadership coach for Countrywide executives, won a wrongful-termination verdict in February 2011 from a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury in Van Nuys. The suit named as defendants Countrywide and Bank of America Corp., which acquired the high-risk mortgage specialist in 2008 and decided against retaining Winston.

The California Court of Appeal ruling, handed down late Tuesday, did not dispute Winston's account of how Countrywide executives, including then-Chairman Angelo Mozilo, had turned against him. But the decision said there was no evidence that the whistle-blowing or Countrywide's retaliation played a role in BofA's decision not to keep Winston employed.

"Winston was hardly the only executive at his level not to be hired by Bank of America; to the contrary, Bank of America retained none of the top executives in Winston's chain of command," Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss wrote for the Los Angeles-based 2nd District Court of Appeal. "Winston has not shown that the history of retaliation he experienced formed the basis for Bank of America's decision not to hire him."

In a statement, Bank of America said it was pleased: "The court agreed with the bank that the jury's finding of liability on a single claim of his original case — wrongful termination — was not supported by the evidence presented at trial."

Winston's attorney, Charles T. "Ted" Mathews of Pasadena, called the decision "a travesty" and said he would petition the appellate court to reconsider its ruling.

"It looked to me like they jumped into another planet and disregarded all the evidence," Mathews said. "The jury got it right — 12 citizens looked at all the evidence and found that Bank of America and Countrywide had grievously harmed Michael Winston."

Winston, 62, a corporate strategy expert, was hired by Countrywide in 2005. He previously had worked for such Fortune 500 companies as Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Motorola and Merrill Lynch.

He said he believed that Countrywide officials poisoned his reputation when BofA took over in retaliation for two of his actions.

The first was calling in state worker-safety officials when he and co-workers were sickened by a mysterious chemical leak. The second was refusing to draft an allegedly fraudulent memo to Moody's Investors Service regarding Countrywide's plans to operate the company after Mozilo retired.

scott.reckard@latimes.com

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