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Black Brokers Move Forward

  By Evelyn Juan Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES

CHICAGO - As they try to revive a discrimination suit against their company, a small group of African-American brokers at Bank of America's (BAC) Merrill Lynch say they are moving forward in their jobs and lives--with critical emotional support from each other.

Their federal court action, which was denied class-action status early this month, doesn't come up for discussion with their managers or clients, three of the brokers said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires. Their peers haven't approached them to discuss it, either, they said.

Not that that makes things any easier. "If not for these two guys and the others, it would be unbearable," said Rocky Howard, a broker in Dallas and one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. He was referring to longtime colleagues and friends George McReynolds and Frankie Ross, who also participated in the telephone interview.

"My wife and the people involved with me [in the case] are the only ones who have an idea of what I'm going through," said McReynolds.

McReynolds in Nashville, Tenn., filed the first suit in 2005, and was eventually joined by 16 other brokers in the company. He had a heart attack three years ago and said he is now back in good shape.

The suit, filed in Chicago, alleged discrimination against black brokers in promotion, compensation, and distribution of client accounts and resources. Its long-standing request for class action was turned down by Judge Robert Gettleman, a ruling applauded by the company, which says its culture is one of diversity and inclusion. The suing brokers haven't given up, filing a motion for reconsideration last week. The court accepted the motion and is set to decide on it by October.

"The ongoing discrimination and the possibility that our case may not be certified--the outcome that we're not sure of--that creates a lot of stress," said Ross, who works in Berkeley, Calif. "That impacts me every single day when I go home."

Staying on with an employer you're suing can be challenging. Often, employees who sue their company leave the firm during their legal fight or shortly after settling it, said Sandra Cohen, who is on the faculty at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City and is a member of the Academy of Organizational and Occupational Psychiatry.

Cohen has dealt with some employee litigants from financial services firms, and said those who sue their employers often suffer from subtle animosity or feeling left out. Finding support inside and outside of the company is key, she said.

Those who sue need to define what circumstances would qualify as vindication, Cohen said. It could simply mean creating a dialogue and bringing the issue to the public eye--or it could mean nothing short of a victorious court verdict. Brokers are "generally ambitious, accomplished people," so it's not easy for them to "let something rest," she added.

A broker in a gender discrimination suit against Merrill, who decided to settle out of court, said it was satisfying to see Merrill take steps to lessen, if not totally wipe out, gender discrimination. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she no longer feels the "pressure or scrutiny that women used to feel here."

But for the African-American brokers, it's still a different case. "We're totally committed to this," Ross said. "We know we've been wronged and we'll fight till we get the justice we deserve."



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