February 10, 2012
Elderly Eugene woman accuses Wells Fargo of overbearing, unlawful bill collection tactics
Like so many Americans, 85-year-old Anne Sessions got behind on a credit card bill and took calls from cranky debt collectors. But none prepared her for the phone call that put three cops on her door and forced her into an emergency "suicide evaluation" for which she was billed $1,055.
The trouble began on Feb. 6, 2011, when Wells Fargo debt collector Charles Gajewski rang her at home in Eugene. He took a "contemptuous tone" about the tardiness of her payments on a Master Card, according to a lawsuit Sessions filed last week in Multnomah County against the bank, Wells Fargo Card Services and Gajewski.
He wasn't the first to call. Wells Fargo reps had been calling since 2010, when financial setbacks put her in arrears. She told them her modest pension and Social Security covered only basic needs. But she agreed to a payment plan to bring her card current and, she hoped, keep the dogs at bay.
Gajewski called six days later, telling Sessions he wasn't honoring the payment plan and wanted to settle the debt before he left for vacation, the suit alleges. Sessions told him calls like his were bad policy and could make people abandon their homes or even commit suicide.
"Throughout the conversation," the lawsuit says, "(Sessions) told defendant Gajewski that she was concerned about other people who might be enduring the same kind of harassment."
Gajewski asked Sessions if she were considering suicide -- "of course not," she said -- then asked how, if she were considering it, she might kill herself, the suit alleges. Sessions told Gajewski she expected to catch up on her payments within five months, hung up and began washing her breakfast dishes.
Thirty minutes later, she found three Eugene police officers on her door. They said Gajewski had phoned 911 and reported she had made multiple suicide threats.
Officers "forcibly" took her to an emergency room and left her with a warning not to leave, the suit alleges. A doctor and a crisis staff member evaluated Sessions, found her no threat to herself or anyone else, and released her.
Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Unger said he couldn't comment on details of the lawsuit. But he noted that employees who handle collections are told to report threats of suicide or violence to police. "In this case," he said, "our team member was genuinely concerned about the customer and did what he thought was in the best interest of the customer."
One of Sessions' lawyers, Jay B. Derum, said his client begged police not to take her to the emergency room.
"After the S-word was mentioned," he said, "everyone was doing their best to cover their, uh, own interests."
Sessions later got a hospital bill of $712, then a a doctor's bill for $343. Outraged, she called the Wells Fargo collection center to speak to Gajewski. A woman said he wasn't around, so Sessions explained to her what had happened.
The employee laughed, her lawsuit alleges, and she heard her call out something like, "Hey Chuck ... that woman you called the police on got taken to the hospital by the police." Then, Sessions claims, she overheard the woman congratulated Gajewski.
Weeks passed before Sessions reached the supervisor of the collections department by phone. She wanted Wells Fargo to accept responsibility for her hospital bills and she demanded a written apology from Gajewski.
The supervisor told her the situation was not Wells Fargo's problem, according to the lawsuit, which seeks $1,055 in economic damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.
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