Ex-Merrill Complex Manager Charges Firm, Division Executive with Anti-Gay Bias
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David V. Hunt, the complex manager of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s downtown Los Angeles branches until he was fired in August, has charged the firm and Southwest Division Executive Benjamin Prince with sexual orientation discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination.
In a lawsuit filed December 21 in California Superior Court, Hunt said Prince displayed demeaning and threatening homophobic behavior in 2015 and 2016, “exacerbated by the mention of the LGBT community or LGBT events.” The suit made specific references to human resources officials who ignored the manager’s complaints about the behavior, but did not name them as defendants.
By failing to investigate Hunt’s complaints, Merrill and Prince “created and condoned and perpetuated a sexually hostile and intimidating work environment for plaintiff and other employees of homosexual orientation,” the complaint says. It names several human resources officials who allegedly ignored Hunt’s complexes and says that he plans to amend his complaint to reflect as many as 30 additional defendants “when they become known to him.”
The suit, which seeks unspecified general and punitive damages as well as pay and benefits, follows a growing number of gender and racial discrimination class-action settlements against U.S. brokerage firms.
Sexual-orientation discrimination suits are rare and authorized in only about half of the 50 states, and class-action lawsuits have not occurred because it would be difficult to muster enough complainants to win certification for such suits, several attorneys said.
“Wall Street is decades behind (the rest of corporate America), in my opinion,” said Linda Friedman, a class-action lawyer in Chicago who has litigated gender and race discrimination suits against Merrill and other firms, in an e-mail responding to questions about precedents for suits such as Hunt’s. “I am not aware of too many openly gay managers. To be discriminated against, one has to be hired.”
Merrill spokesman William Halldin said the firm promptly investigated Hunt’s allegations after his lawyer raised them and found no evidence to support them.
“Mr. Hunt was fired for violating our company’s hiring practices,” he said. “Given his long career at our company, we were disappointed that we were forced to take that step.”
Merrill accused Hunt of violating an “anti-bribery policy,” according to the lawsuit, a reference that an insider said referred to his encouragement of hiring a friend or relative of a good Merrill customer. “[E]ven if Plaintiff had violated this policy, such violation would not be grounds for termination,” says the lawsuit, which adds that Hunt had been “one of the highest earners at Merrill” and was terminated without having received a formal reprimand or period of performance review.
The lawsuit accuses Prince, one of ten division executives at the brokerage giant, of having used vulgar terms in questioning why Merrill was sponsoring an LGBT film festival, of moving Hunt’s office nameplate to a smaller office and of saying at a management meeting held a day after the murder of 49 people at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando that employees who did not comply with his policies “should be shot.”
Asked if that policy might invite a lawsuit, “Prince looked directly at Plaintiff and stated that….Merrill Lynch ‘would worry about the lawsuits later,’” the complaint alleges.
Prince, who did not return a call for comment, has been a “strong advocate for diversity” at Merrill for years and serves as a designated management “ally” for its LGBT employee network, Halldin said.
Bank of America, the parent of Merrill Lynch’s retail brokerage firm, was the ‘first financial services company to offer comprehensive domestic partner benefits” and “to incorporate sexual orientation into our nondiscrimination policies,” Halldin said. He also noted that the bank for ten years has scored 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
Hunt, who now works at a Wells Fargo’s private banking office in Beverly Hills, referred questions to his lawyer, Joshua Bordin-Wosk, who did not return calls for comment.
-Mason Braswell contributed reporting to this story.