Merrill Met with Brokers Over Bias Suit

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Merrill Lynch, the largest brokerage in the U.S., recently met with a group of its African-American brokers, including one who recently filed a discrimination suit against the firm, to discuss alleged bias issues and to improve workplace diversity.

Confirming a report that first appeared in The Wall Street Journal today, sources familiar with the situation told Financial News that the meeting took several hours on December 14 at Merrill's New York headquarters.

The meeting was attended by, among others, Dan Sontag, head of Merrill's global private client advisory unit, and Phil Sieg, managing director of strategic leadership and business development.

Sources said that Merrill executives met with about a dozen African-American brokers from various regional branches, including George McReynolds. McReynolds, a financial adviser at the firm's Nashville office, filed a discrimination suit in November against Merrill at U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

McReynolds' complaint alleges a nationwide pattern of discrimination at Merrill. The charges include failure to hire and promote African-Americans and failure to fully utilize them, as well as denying them opportunities to advance to management jobs. The complaint also alleges that accounts and clients of African-American brokers are often taken away and given to white brokers.

Stowell & Friedman, the Chicago law firm representing McReynolds, said it is seeking a class-action status and that it is currently in preliminary talks with Merrill. McReynolds' complaint points out African Americans make up only 2% of Merrill's 14,000 brokers, significantly below the 7% securities industry average as reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Merrill has been implementing a number of diversity initiatives in recent years, spearheaded by the bank's chairman and chief executive officer Stanley O'Neal, who is African-American.