Judge may reject parts of Wells Fargo account abuse settlement

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A federal judge signaled that he may reject parts of Wells Fargo & Co's proposed $142 million settlement with customers for whom it opened millions of unauthorized accounts.

In an order on Tuesday evening, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco ordered lawyers for customers and the bank to address his concerns, including whether the entire settlement should be rejected, before a scheduled Thursday hearing to consider preliminary approval.

The accord would resolve claims that Wells Fargo employees opened as many as 3.5 million bogus accounts since 2002 to meet unrealistic sales goals, driving up costs for customers and often hurting their credit scores.

It followed a national scandal that erupted last September after the third-largest U.S. bank agreed to pay $185 million in penalties to settle related charges by various authorities.

Wells Fargo spokesman Jim Seitz on Wednesday said the San Francisco-based bank is preparing a response, and considers the settlement "an important step in our journey to make things right for our customers and rebuild trust."

Lawyers for the customers did not immediately respond on Wednesday to requests for comment.

Chhabria said he was "strongly inclined" to reject a provision for an injunction barring customers from pursuing other claims against the bank, and asked whether this would "require the court to reject the proposed settlement."

He also said he was "tentatively" inclined to carve out claims related to customer overdrafts, and said "there may be an argument" that executives and directors got too much protection.

Concerns were also raised that the settlement might not guarantee "full compensation" to everyone harmed, and might limit the potential for "significant" punitive damages.

The judge also asked how the estimate of bogus accounts rose to 3.5 million, a number suggested by the customers' lawyers last Thursday, from the prior 2.1 million estimate.

Chhabria has received several objections contending that the settlement is too broad, and the payout is too low.

The scandal cost former Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf and retail banking chief Carrie Tolstedt their jobs, plus tens of millions of dollars of compensation.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Rigby)

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