Nov 15 2010
Brett Wolf

A former private banking officer at Ocean Bank has filed a lawsuit against her former employer claiming that managers discriminated against her and fired her for reporting certain “suspicious” activity to senior managers. A civil complaint filed in the case stated that the plaintiff, Niurka Sanchez, worked in Ocean Bank’s wealth management division, handled a $60m portfolio and had been with the bank for 25 years at the time she was sacked in January 2009. Sanchez has sought an undisclosed amount of back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and lawyers’ fees.

According to Sanchez’s lawyers, Pelayo Duran and Rod Hannah, Sanchez’s woes began in early 2008 after Alfonso Macedo became president of Ocean Bank. As Complinet readers may recall, Macedo took the bank’s reins less than a year after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation targeted the bank with a cease-and-desist order which alleged anti-money laundering failures. Explaining his client’s discrimination allegations, Duran said: “The culture of Ocean Bank changed to one favoring employees and officers of Venezuelan national origin. My client, who is Cuban-American, began to notice that she was being singled out and treated differently.” Sanchez also claimed in the lawsuit that she brought to the attention of Ocean Bank’s managers certain “suspicious activities” relating to foreign transactions “involving certain politically exposed person Venezuelan nationals” in mid-2008. The complaint added that Sanchez sought to file “appropriate and required documentation to report certain transactions and activity and lack of cooperation” as required by the Bank Secrecy Act, and by Ocean Bank’s internal policies. The complaint stated: “However, during a personal meeting with Mr. Macedo to discuss the suspicious transactions … Mr. Macedo informed [Sanchez] that what she had done was improper and that she should not have reported the transactions because one of the parties involved was an intimate friend of Mr. Macedo’s family who would customarily engage in transactions of this sort.” It added: “Sanchez further verbally informed Mr. Macedo that she had grown increasingly suspicious with the activity in the account, as large amounts of dollars had been flowing from another bank owned by [Ocean Bank’s] principals into the suspects’ accounts with [Ocean Bank] and that the funds were being routinely transferred to offshore banks with conflicting information without the supporting documentation.”

The lawsuit also claimed that Sanchez told Macedo that she had been trying “desperately” to comply with the BSA’s “know your customer” requirements with regard to accounts involving Macedo’s purported “family friend”. While the complaint did not elaborate, it can only be assumed that this was a reference to the enhanced due diligence requirements imposed on private bankers by s312 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. The complaint stated that the account holder in question “had been evasive in responding to [Sanchez’s] inquiries, for which she had documented her suspicions”. It also suggested that Ocean Bank “subsequently and illegally removed all evidence of [Sanchez’s] reporting compliance to cover up the suspicious and potentially illegal activity and transactions”.

Duran said: “After sharing her concerns with another manager, who took no action, my client was eventually stripped of all of her clients. She was demoted to the International Banking Center. Later, she was informed that she was being terminated in a company-wide layoff.”

When contacted by Complinet, a spokesman for Ocean Bank was dismissive of the allegations and annoyed that Sanchez’s lawyers had touted “an eight-month-old lawsuit” to the media via a press release the day after the Veterans Day bank holiday. The original civil complaint was filed in March, and the amended complaint was filed in May. The bank’s spokesman said: “This lawsuit is nonsense in every way and is devoid of any merit. That Ocean Bank would discriminate against employees of Cuban descent is beyond preposterous. It is unfortunate that the plaintiff and her attorneys are attempting to litigate this case through a press release. We will defend this lawsuit vigorously and look forward to having the truth come out where it belongs, in a court of law.”

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