Merrill Lynch ‘settles’ prejudice lawsuit

Lawyers for hundreds of black financial advisers have reached a $US160 million ($A180 million) settlement in a lawsuit accusing Wall Street brokerage giant Merrill Lynch of racial discrimination, a plaintiffs’ lawyer says.

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If approved by a federal judge in Chicago, the payout by Merrill Lynch to around 1,200 plaintiffs would be one of the largest ever in a racial discrimination case, Chicago-based lawyer Suzanne E. Bish said.

Speaking from his Merrill Lynch office in Dallas, one of the first plaintiffs from the earliest days of the suit, Maroc “Rocky” Howard, said he wished he and his fellow black brokers never had to resort to litigation.

“Working in a fair environment, I would have made more money than this settlement is going to make me,” Howard, 55, said in a phone interview. “But it is a positive thing.”

Another plaintiff who has since left the firm, Marshell Miller, 58, of Arkansas, also welcomed that eight years of litigation was drawing to a close.

“It’s been a long struggle,” Miller said. “But it was something that needed to be done.”

Bank of America-owned Merrill Lync”h – one of the world’s largest brokerages with more than 15,000 financial advisers – issued a statement Wednesday saying only, “We’re not at this point commenting on the existence of the settlement nor the status of a settlement.”

Lead plaintiff George McReynolds accused Merrill Lynch of steering black brokers away from the most lucrative business and so, under a compensation system emphasising production, they earned less than their white counterparts. They made 43 per cent less in compensation on average in 2006, plaintiff filings allege.

The settlement coincides with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream Speech, Bish noted. She said she hopes the case will help ensure the kind of equal opportunity King spoke about in Washington, D.C.

Bish said the settlement should force changes beyond the company singled out as the defendant.

“They are leaders on Wall Street,” she said. “And increasing opportunities for African-Americans at Merrill Lynch should spill over to the rest of Wall Street.”

In its own filings in the case over recent years, Merrill Lynch denied the discrimination allegation and staunchly defended its compensation programs.

“All (financial advisers), regardless of race, are judged by the same metric,” one of the company’s filings argued. “The rule is simple: produce more, earn more.”

Settlements don’t necessarily imply that a defendant accepts any wrongdoing. Bish said she could not discuss detailed terms of the agreement with Merrill Lynch.

But plaintiffs claimed discrimination pervaded Merrill Lynch, at least partly because the company employed relatively few African-Americans overall. In a 2009 plaintiffs’ filing, they contended that fewer than two per cent of the brokers at Merrill Lynch were black.

“Far from being a colourblind meritocracy, race permeates policy and practice in a way that creates substantial obstacles to equal employment opportunity for Merrill Lynch’s African-American employees,” William T Bielby, a professor of sociology, said in the filing.

Merrill Lynch sometimes relied on stereotypes, the filing also asserted, once allegedly suggesting managers encourage black brokers to “learn to play golf or other activities designed to learn how business gets done in manners (they) might not be familiar with.”