Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. It’s being honored with celebrations and speeches, including a speech this afternoon by President Obama, the nation’s first black president. But one quick glance at the headlines serves as a reminder that discrimination is far from vanquished, even in the workplaces of some of America’s most well-known and prestigious companies. To wit, Merrill Lynch has just agreed to pay the largest settlement ever to be paid in a racial discrimination suit to a group of 700 black brokers who worked for Merrill.
The $160 million settlement caps an eight-year legal battle that included two appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. “This is a somewhat heroic story because these plaintiffs just kept fighting and fighting,” John C. Coffee Jr., a law professor at Columbia, told the New York Times.
The brokers contended that they received less management support than their non-black coworkers and were often ostracized by their colleagues. When the suit was filed in 2005, only about one of every 75 brokers at Merrill was black. Ironically enough, Merrill’s first black CEO, E. Stanley O’Neal, admitted in a deposition that black brokers at the company might have a harder time succeeding than whites because most of Merrill’s prospective clients were white and might not trust their money to a non-white broker.
The plaintiffs’ chances looked especially dicey after the Supreme Court ruled for the defendants in last year’s Wal-Mart ruling. However, Linda D. Friedman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, was able to convince an appellate panel for the U.S. Seventh Circuit last year to reverse a lower-court ruling that denied class certification to the plaintiffs. Friedman argued that Merrill’s practice of encouraging brokers to form teams and letting departing brokers hand off customers to other team members had a disparate impact on black brokers.
A trial was set for next year after Merrill’s appeal of the decision was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court. However, the company decided to settle instead.