By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
Last week, Merrill Lynch agreed to pay $1.55 million to settle a case of discrimination brought by an Iranian Muslim employee who alleged that he was passed over for promotion and then fired because of his religion and national origin. The complaint alleged that the employee was told that he would not be allowed on the trading floor “because you are from a country which has a high risk factor and a threat.” Not surprisingly, Merrill Lynch denied the accusations.
What accounts for this relatively large settlement? From the publicly available information, it appears that managers at Merrill Lynch were blatant in expressing their bigotry. Bigotry that is expressed in more subtle ways is equally illegal, but may be more difficult to prove. Another important factor is that the Plaintiff in this case was a highly compensated professional. When a highly paid employee is fired, the potential for damages grows.


For accounts of this settlement, see:
http://www.eeoc.gov/press/12-31-08a.html
http://www.forbes.com/reuters/feeds/reuters/2008/12/31/2008-12-31T211636Z_01_N31349562_RTRIDST_0_MERRILL-EEOC-SETTLEMENT-UPDATE-2.html
Generally, the public does not hear about the size of settlements in employment cases. Unless the case goes to trial (which is rare, given the expense of legal fees), virtually all settlements are entered with a confidentiality agreement. Occasionally, the EEOC decides to join a plaintiff in a case which the EEOC feels has particular merit. Because the EEOC does not allow a confidential settlement, the public is more likely to learn of those cases.
Joanne Rathgeber of Hill Wallack’s employment group worked with the EEOC to obtain a $ 1.65 million settlement in a race discrimination suit last year.
For information on that settlement, see the link:
http://www.eeoc.gov/press/5-5-08.html
That case involved an employer (Conectiv) and subcontractors who failed to protect African American employees from racial harassment, including hanging nooses and truly disgusting graffiti in the restrooms. It is disturbing to be in this field and see how often blatant bias is tolerated in the workplace. Hill Wallack’s employment group has handled and successfully settled several of these cases … which can’t be discussed here because of confidentiality agreements!