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An arbitration panel found that Merrill Lynch & Co. engaged in systematic discrimination against women in a decision that awarded $2.2 million to a former female broker. The decision marks the first ruling against a Wall Street firm for systematic discrimination. Experts said the legal finding of a pattern at Merrill likely will pressure the firm to settle 39 other cases against it that stem from a class action suit filed against the company in 1997. “Now there will be a presumption that the other women were victims of a pattern of discrimination. Merrill Lynch will have to rebut that,” said Jill Weinstein, a lawyer at Stowell & Friedman in Chicago, which represented former Merrill Lynch broker Hydie Sumner. A three-member arbitration panel awarded Sumner the money on Monday and the decision was made public late Tuesday. It was the largest award to stem from nearly 1,000 bias lawsuits women brokers have filed against the firm since 1997. A separate panel awarded $500,000 to another former female Merrill Lynch broker in a discrimination case last year. “If I were Merrill Lynch I would settle the other cases. This is a terrible embarrassment for them,” said Alfred Blumrose, a retired law professor who consults in discrimination cases. Sumner alleged that she was not given the same amount of brokerage work as male colleagues and that her manager at the San Antonio office sexually harassed her. “It took a lot of personal sacrifice to go through the process. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun,” said Sumner. “But I put it on the public record.” “The firm described in the panel’s decision is not today’s Merrill Lynch,” said Mark Herr, a spokesman for Merrill Lynch, the nation’s largest brokerage. “We agree, and regret, that nearly a decade ago there was inappropriate behavior in the San Antonio office. It should not have occurred and would not be tolerated today.” The San Antonio office manager Sumner worked for is no longer at Merrill Lynch. Herr said the company has taken several steps to ensure such behavior does not recur, including the way it distributes account work among brokers and “expanding our diversity initiatives.” Weinstein, who represents some of the remaining plaintiffs, said some of her clients that still work at Merrill have seen some changes. They say overt sexual harassment is not tolerated anymore but that men still do make more money. Monday’s ruling could change that, she said. “I don’t see how Wall Street can’t take notice,” said Weinstein. “Women have a voice they didn’t have before. This is something that can’t be swept under the rug anymore.” The panel’s decision allows for Sumner to request a reinstatement hearing, an option she is considering. “I’d like to be a manager,” said Sumner. “Maybe if there were more women managers things would really change.” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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