He Felled a Giant, but He Can’t Collect
Mr. Winston won a wrongful-dismissal and retaliation case against the company in February 2011, but is still waiting to receive his $3.8 million award. Bank of America is fighting back and has appealed the jury verdict twice.
After hearing a month of testimony from a parade of top Countrywide officials, including the company’s founder, Angelo Mozilo, a California state jury sided with Mr. Winston. An executive with decades of expertise in management strategy, he contended that he was pushed out for, among other things, refusing to follow questionable orders from his superiors.
But for the last year and a quarter, Mr. Winston, 61, has been in legal limbo. Bank of America lost one appeal in the court that heard the case and has filed another that is pending in state appellate court.
Mr. Winston, meanwhile, has been unable to find work that is commensurate with his experience. “The devastation caused by Countrywide to me, my family, my team, the work force, customers, shareholders, taxpayers and citizens around the world is incalculable,” he said.
Before joining Countrywide, Mr. Winston held high-powered strategy posts at Motorola, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed . He was global head of worldwide leadership and organizational strategy at Merrill Lynch in New York but resigned from that post in 2003 to care for his parents, who were terminally ill.
At Countrywide, he said, one of his problems was his refusal in fall 2006 to misrepresent the company’s corporate governance practices to analysts at Moody’s Investors Service. The ratings agency had expressed concerns about succession planning at Countrywide and other governance issues that the company hoped to allay.
Mr. Winston says a Countrywide executive asked him to write a report outlining Countrywide’s extensive succession planning for use by Moody’s. He refused, noting that he had no knowledge of any such plan. The company began to diminish his duties and department shortly thereafter. He was dismissed after Bank of America took over Countrywide.
Of course, it is not unusual for big corporate defendants to appeal jury awards. Bank of America argues in its court filings that the jury erred because Mr. Winston’s battles with his Countrywide superiors had nothing to do with his dismissal. Bank officials testified that he was let go because there was no job for him at the acquiring company.
“We believe that the jury’s finding of liability on the single claim of wrongful termination in retaliation is not supported by any evidence, let alone ‘substantial evidence’ as is required by law,” a Bank of America spokesman said.
In court filings, the bank also said that the jury appeared to be “swayed by emotion and prejudice, focusing on unsubstantiated and unsupported statements by plaintiff and his counsel slandering Countrywide and its executives.”
But a juror in the case rejected this argument. “There was no doubt in my mind that the guys at Countrywide had not only done something wrong legally and ethically, but they weren’t very bright about it,” said that juror, Sam Usher, a former human resources executive at General Motors who spoke recently about the officials who testified. “If somebody in an organization is a whistle-blower, then you not only treat him with respect, you also make sure that whatever he was concerned about gets taken care of. These folks went in the other direction.”
The credibility of all testimony in the case was central to jurors’ deliberations, Mr. Usher said. Instructions to the jury went into great detail on this point, advising them that they were “the sole and exclusive judges of the believability of the witnesses and the weight to be given the testimony of each witness.” The instructions added: “A witness, who is willfully false in one material part of his or her testimony, is to be distrusted in others.”
Mr. Usher said that those who testified against Mr. Winston “didn’t have a lot of credibility.”
That’s putting it mildly, said Charles T. Mathews, a former prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office who represented Mr. Winston. He said he was so disturbed by what he characterized as persistent perjury by various Countrywide officials that he forwarded annotated copies of court transcripts to Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney, for possible investigation.
“We won a multimillion-dollar verdict against Countrywide, but it sticks in my guts that they lied through their teeth and continue to escape accountability,” Mr. Mathews wrote to Mr. Cooley, urging him to investigate.
Whether perjury or not, the testimony ran into withering challenges.
Countrywide’s top human resources executive testified that Mr. Winston was a problematic employee and not a team player. But a performance evaluation she had written shortly before the company started to reduce his duties was produced in the case. It said Mr. Winston had “done well to build relationships with key members of senior management and continues to do so.”
The evaluation went on: “Michael strives to be a team player,” and “is absolutely focused on process improvement in his areas and has been working tirelessly to do so since he’s been on board.”
Mr. Mathews also contends that Mr. Mozilo, in a rare courtroom appearance, misrepresented his views of Mr. Winston. First, Mr. Mozilo testified that he did not know Mr. Winston, even though testimony and documents showed that he had attended presentations with him, personally given Mr. Winston a pair of Countrywide cuff links and told another employee that Mr. Winston’s leadership programs were “exactly what Countrywide needs.”
Mr. Mozilo’s testimony that he was unimpressed with Mr. Winston and his work was also refuted by another Countrywide executive who said that Mr. Mozilo was enthusiastic enough about Mr. Winston’s programs to suggest that he present them to the company’s board.
Asked about Mr. Mozilo’s testimony, David Siegel, a lawyer who represents him, said in an e-mail that there was no merit to the accusation that Mr. Mozilo was not truthful.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cooley’s office confirmed last week that it had received the court transcripts and said that one of its prosecutors was reviewing them. She declined to comment further.
“God forbid our system continues to ignore these people and their acts,” Mr. Mathews said in an interview last week. “I am optimistic but the price of justice can be different depending on what your wallet says.”