CHICAGO • Hundreds of black financial advisers have reached a $160 million settlement in a lawsuit accusing Wall Street brokerage giant Merrill Lynch of racial discrimination, a plaintiffs’ attorney said Wednesday.
If approved by a federal judge in Chicago as expected, the payout by Merrill Lynch to around 1,200 plaintiffs would be one of the largest ever in a racial discrimination case, Chicago-based attorney Suzanne E. Bish said.
Merrill Lynch, which was purchased by Bank of America in 2009, released a statement Wednesday saying only, "We’re not at this point commenting on the existence of the settlement nor the status of a settlement."
The primary plaintiff, George McReynolds, alleged a pattern of discrimination that resulted in blacks having lower production than white men at the company. McReynolds, of Nashville, Tenn., is still employed at Merrill Lynch, Bish said.
Bish said the settlement should force changes beyond the company singled out as the defendant in the eight-year-old lawsuit.
"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."
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.
"I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it," she said about coincidence that settle came around the anniversary. "What (the plaintiffs) wanted to achieve was the same opportunities for the next generation — for their children."
When attorneys filed the lawsuit 2005, McReynolds was the loan plaintiff, though hundreds of others signed on as the suit wound its way through the court, at times appearing as if it might be doomed.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman had denied the suit class-action status. But the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago granted the status in 2012 — reviving the case and vastly extending its reach.
The black brokers at Merrill Lynch claimed they were systematically steered away from the most lucrative assignments. Consequently, under a compensation system emphasizing production, they couldn’t earn what white counterparts made.
Gettleman, the judge in Chicago, must formally approve the deal, a process that could take months. A status hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 3.
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