By Neil Weinberg
(Bloomberg) -- JPMorgan Chase & Co. wrongfully fired a financial adviser in retaliation for publicly complaining that managers pressured him to sell the bank’s own investment products, a federal investigator found.
JPMorgan said it will appeal the finding, which awarded Johnny Burris $64,400 in back wages and $100,000 for reputational damage, pain and suffering. The finding by an investigator for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was released on Tuesday.
OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, said there was “reasonable cause” to conclude that JPMorgan’s decision to terminate Burris resulted in part from employee behavior protected under the anti-retaliation provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. An appeal would be considered by an administrative law judge.
“Mr. Burris previously raised these same claims to a Finra panel, with the same basic evidence, and the claims were denied,” JPMorgan spokeswoman Patricia Wexler said in an e-mailed statement. She was referring to a 2014 ruling by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s industry-funded brokerage regulator, that he wasn’t wrongfully dismissed. “We look forward to presenting our case in the next step of this process and putting this to rest.”
Burris disputes the validity of the Finra ruling. The arbitrators made their decision based on a client complaint that OSHA later found to have been written by a JPMorgan manager, Burris said.
Under the OSHA finding, JPMorgan would have to clear that complaint and expunge his industry employment record, known as a U5. It would also have to pay him reasonable attorneys’ fees.
Burris expressed dissatisfaction with the OSHA decision. “They ruled in my favor but tried to limit the damages to the bank,” he said. OSHA’s San Francisco office, which handled the case, didn’t respond to a request seeking comment on the finding.
Burris isn’t the only former JPMorgan adviser to complain of retaliation. A trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 23 in Manhattan federal court to reconsider the case of Jennifer Sharkey, a former JPMorgan wealth manager who alleges that the bank fired her in violation of Sarbanes-Oxley whistle-blower protections after she recommended that it investigate whether a wealthy client was involved in illegal activity. Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed an earlier dismissal of the case and sent it back to the lower court.
Last June, a Finra arbitration panel found that JPMorgan had defamed three former New Jersey wealth managers by falsely amending their employment records. The bank was ordered by the arbitrators to expunge the advisers’ records.
Burris began working as a Chase Private Client adviser in Sun City West, Arizona, in June 2010. Shortly afterward, he started voicing complaints internally about being pressured by managers to sell more of the bank’s products to his elderly clientele, even if there were better investment options for them. Burris also provided information about his concerns to the New York Times, which featured him in a July 2012 article.
In the ensuing months, Burris’s managers frequently discussed how he was selling a low percentage of JPMorgan-managed products, according to OSHA’s written finding. Burris was fired by the bank in November 2012. A JPMorgan manager went outside firm procedure, turned an oral customer complaint into a written one and required Burris to list it on his employment record, “likely blacklisting him and causing him reputational harm,” according to the OSHA finding.