Bank of America sued for race discrimination

NEW YORK Fri May 18, 2007 3:21pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five black current and former employees of Bank of America Corp. have sued the second-largest U.S. bank, accusing it of racial discrimination by steering lucrative clients to their white counterparts.

The 29-page complaint, filed Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Boston, contends that the bank discriminates against African-Americans in pay, promotions, training and support services.

It said the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank regularly teams African-American workers together and assigns them to largely minority neighborhoods and low net-worth clients.

When the workers complained, according to the lawsuit, the bank said it believed that clients are more "comfortable" dealing with bankers and brokers of their own race.

"There is a perception at the bank that predominantly white, wealthy customers in high net-worth neighborhoods are only going to be comfortable with Caucasian financial advisers and bankers," said Darnley Stewart, a partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP who represents the plaintiffs, in an interview. "It's a complete stereotype."

Bank of America said it will defend against the lawsuit, and has a strong record of hiring and training workers. "We have been recognized for our success in creating and supporting a diverse and inclusive work place," spokeswoman Shirley Norton said. "Our company does not tolerate discrimination."

The lawsuit covers April 2003 to the present, and seeks class-action status. It seeks a halt to the alleged improper practices, back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages.

Separately, Bank of America was sued Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Delaware by a former paralegal who said he wasn't paid overtime when he worked during meal periods or beyond his standard 40-hour week. That lawsuit also seeks class-action status.

Norton said the bank hasn't fully investigated the claims, but has policies to ensure worker compensation complies with applicable laws.

DISCRIMINATION LAWSUITS

According to the bias complaint, Bank of America's investment services unit employs 4,400 "premier bankers" and 3,000 brokers in 30 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. It is unclear how many African-Americans might be covered by the lawsuit.

Other brokerages have also faced bias lawsuits accusing them, among other issues, of steering wealthy clients to particular groups of workers.

Merrill Lynch & Co. faces an 18-month-old lawsuit in Chicago by African-American brokers and trainees. Morgan Stanley, meanwhile, last month agreed to pay $46 million to settle bias accusations by six former female brokers.

The Bank of America plaintiffs work or have worked for the bank in the Atlanta, St. Louis and south Florida areas, according to the complaint.

Stewart said that while the alleged discrimination differs from accusations other brokerages have faced of creating hostile work environments, she said "it's equally pernicious."

"The tone from the top needs to be that the bank will treat professionals equally, and that is not happening," she said. "Too many decisions are left to people at the local level."

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