Jury awards fired Countrywide executive $3.8 million
A Superior Court jury in Van Nuys has awarded $3.8 million to a former Countrywide Financial Corp. executive who claimed he was fired because he refused to falsify a report to a bond-rating firm and exposed unsafe working conditions at a Countrywide building.
On a 9-3 vote, jurors found that Countrywide retaliated against Michael Winston for telling health officials that he and co-workers were sickened by a chemical leak and for his refusal to draft an allegedly fraudulent memo on Countrywide succession planning to Moody's Investors Service.
Reeling from losses on its aggressive mortgage lending, Countrywide was acquired in 2008 by Bank of America Corp., which took on its liability for lawsuits and was also a defendant in the case. BofA said Wednesday that it had not decided whether to appeal the verdict, announced last Thursday after the jury deliberated for 2 1/2 days.
"We're disappointed with the ruling and we're reviewing our options," BofA spokeswoman Shirley Norton said.
Winston, a corporate strategy expert who had worked for such prominent firms as Motorola and Lockheed Martin, was hired in 2006 to develop leadership training programs and executive succession plans at Countrywide, the giant Calabasas mortgage lender.
"Here's a guy who refused to lie to Moody's," his lawyer, Ted Mathews, said Wednesday. "He got in trouble for standing up and doing what was right."
Called as a hostile witness by Mathews, former Countrywide Chief Executive Angelo R. Mozilo said he had wanted Winston fired -- not in retaliation but because a leadership program he created was unimpressive and because Winston wasn't a team player.
In addition to wrongful termination, Winston also alleged that Countrywide defrauded him by misrepresenting the company as strong when it hired him. Winston testified that he was persuaded to accept a relatively low salary with the promise that he would make millions on stock options that proved worthless.
That allegation proved a loser. The jurors voted 9-3 that there had been no intentional concealment or suppression of any fact with the intent to defraud Winston.
The jurors awarded Winston $1.25 million in past economic damages and $2.57 million in future economic damages. They declined to award damages for emotional distress.
-- E. Scott Reckard
Photo: Countrywide Financial co-founder Angelo Mozilo, dark glasses, outside Van Nuys Superior Court with his lawyers last month. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times