Merrill Lynch commits to change in settlement

A logo for financial service company Merrill Lynch is seen in New York, June 20, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO As part of its $160 million proposed discrimination settlement with black financial advisers, Merrill Lynch has agreed to make sweeping changes that "may well change the landscape of Wall Street," attorneys said Thursday in court filings.

The documents filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago come days after attorneys for around 1,200 plaintiffs alleged racial bias by the firm announced a deal, which, if approved by a judge, would be one of the largest ever in a discrimination suit.

Among a long list of measures, Merrill Lynch will create a "leadership council" to recommend ways to improve opportunities for African Americans; it commits to interviewing at least one minority candidate when selecting new executives, and it agrees to consider diversity issues when assessing directors' job performances.

Arguing that the settlement has potential impact beyond Merrill Lynch, Thursday's joint documents urge the U.S. district judge overseeing the case in Chicago, Robert Gettleman, to formally approve it. A status hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3.

"Class Counsel respectfully submits that this case and settlement may well change the landscape of Wall Street as well as discrimination and class action law," one of the documents says.

Plaintiffs accused the Bank of America-owned Merrill Lynch -- one of the world's largest brokerages with more than 15,000 financial advisers -- of steering black brokers away from the most lucrative business and so, under a compensation system emphasizing production, they earned less than their white counterparts.

While it agreed to address issues of diversity in the workplace, Merrill Lynch doesn't admit wrongdoing in the settlement. In filings during eight years of litigation, it denied the discrimination allegation and staunchly defended its compensation programs.

"All (financial advisers), regardless of race, are judged by the same metric," one of the company's filings argued. "The rule is simple: produce more, earn more."

Plaintiffs claimed discrimination pervaded Merrill Lynch, at least partly because the company employed relatively few African-Americans overall. In a 2009 plaintiffs' filing, they contended that fewer than 2 percent of the brokers at Merrill Lynch were black.

Other changes Merrill Lynch agrees to, according to Thursday's filings, include increases its diversity fund to $1 million a year to pay for business development events for minority and female financial advisers.