Brokerage Merrill Lynch and its parent Bank of America will pay US$160 million to settle charges it discriminated against African-American employees, lawyers for the employees said on Wednesday.
The payout would settle an eight-year-old lawsuit involving 1,200 black brokers who worked at the firm, and would be the largest amount won against a company in a US racial discrimination lawsuit.
Pointing out that Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr’s landmark I Have a Dream speech, Suzanne Bish of Chicago law firm Stowell & Friedman said that Bank of America and the plaintiffs had reached a deal to resolve the dispute.
“It has been a long and winding road,” she said. “We always felt the evidence was compelling.”
The final settlement has not been signed, but a hearing on it has been scheduled for Wednesday.
“We’re working towards a very positive resolution of a lawsuit filed in 2005 and are enhancing opportunities for African-American national advisers,” a spokesman for Bank of America and Merrill Lynch said.
The case, originally filed on behalf of 700 black Merrill brokers, but finally addressing the complaints of 1,200, argued that because the company’s clients were overwhelmingly white, Merrill unfairly denied promotions and valuable accounts to black brokers.
Ironically, Merrill’s chairman and chief executive between 2003 and 2007 was an African-American, E. Stanley O’Neal, a veteran of Wall Street finance.
However, Bush pointed out that O’Neal climbed the ranks in a different side of the business, investment banking, where African-Americans did not face the same challenges.
“The experience of our clients was very different from the experience of O’Neal,” she said.
The news of the imminent settlement came on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s clarion call for racial equality.
Standing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, where King delivered his landmark speech, US President Barack Obama told a huge crowd commemorating the event there was a need for “constant vigilance” to fight the forces of bias and discrimination.
“We will win this fight. This country has changed too much,” said Obama, who became the country’s first black president in 2009.