Merrill Lynch to pay nearly $20M to settle racial discrimination lawsuit

CAPTION: Bank of America-Merrill Lynch specialists work at their post at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011. (Richard Drew / AP Photo)

NEW YORK — Merrill Lynch has agreed to pay nearly $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accuses the Wall Street brokerage giant of racially discriminating against its black financial advisers.

The lawsuit alleges that African American advisers employed by Bank of America-owned Merrill received less compensation and promotions than their white counterparts — and were terminated at higher rates than their white colleagues, with fewer advancing to more senior roles. The case alleges that this resulted from discriminatory practices at the company, which included a broader lack of support and inequitable teaming opportunities.

“The violations of African-American employees’ rights are systemic and are based upon company-wide policies and practices,” reads the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida last week. Four former Merrill advisers brought the complaint.

According to a May 24 motion for settlement, Merrill has agreed to pay $19.95 million, which will compensate class members with individual payments beyond attorney fees and administration costs. The plaintiffs expect there to be about 1,375 eligible class members.

As part of the settlement, which still needs a judge’s approval, Merrill has also agreed to additional “programmatic relief” — including a review of the company’s current and past diversity initiatives and analysis of diversity metrics and pay equity. Merrill does not admit to any wrongdoing under the settlement’s terms.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Bank of America said that the company “reached an agreement to resolve this matter so we could focus on initiatives to assist Black financial advisers and their clients.”

Charlotte-based Bank of America acquired Merrill in 2008 and added that it had “implemented numerous policies and programs over the last ten years” — including increased training to improve diversity and inclusion. At that time, the company noted that the number of black financial advisers at Merrill had risen by more than 40%, and the representation of teams had more than tripled.

This legal battle dates back several years. According to the motion for settlement, the class counsel first sent Merrill a letter informing the company of the plaintiffs’ allegations in September 2020, and negotiations between the parties continued in the following months and years.

A class action complaint was also filed in federal court in Michigan in July 2021. Still, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the action in November 2022 so that settlement negotiations could conclude, as stated in last week’s motion notes.

Just over a decade ago, in August 2013, Merrill agreed to a sweeping settlement following previous allegations of racial discrimination from black financial advisers. At the time, the company decided to pay $160 million and implement a list of measures to improve workplace diversity.