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Brokerage giant settles discrimination lawsuit

CHICAGO — Lawyers for hundreds of black financial advisers have reached a $160 million settlement in a lawsuit accusing Wall Street brokerage giant Merrill Lynch of racial discrimination, a plaintiffs’ lawyer said Wednesday.

If approved by a federal judge in Chicago, the payout by Merrill Lynch to about 1,200 plaintiffs would be one of the largest ever in a racial discrimination case, lawyer Suzanne E. Bish said.

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Merrill Lynch — one of the world’s largest brokerages with more than 15,000 financial advisers — issued a statement Wednesday saying, ‘‘We’re not at this point commenting on the existence of the settlement nor the status of a settlement.’’

Lead plaintiff George McReynolds accused Merrill Lynch of steering black brokers away from the most lucrative business, causing them to earn less than their white counterparts. They made 43 percent less in compensation on average in 2006, plaintiff filings allege.

The settlement coincides with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘‘I Have a Dream Speech,’’ Bish noted. She said she hopes the case will help ensure the kind of equal opportunity King spoke about in Washington.

‘‘I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it,’’ she said about the coincidence the settlement came around the anniversary. ‘‘What [the plaintiffs] wanted to achieve was the same opportunities for the next generation — for their children.’’

Bish said the settlement should force changes beyond the company singled out as the defendant in the lawsuit.

‘What [the plaintiffs] wanted to achieve was the same opportunities for the next generation.’

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‘‘They are leaders on Wall Street,’’ she said. ‘‘And increasing opportunities for African-Americans at Merrill Lynch should spill over to the rest of Wall Street.’’

The president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Harry C. Alford, echoed that. ‘‘I am elated, ecstatic,’’ he said. ‘‘It should send a message to Wall Street: You need to be conscious of discrimination and make sure you don’t discriminate.’’

In its own filings in the case, Merrill Lynch 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.’’

Settlements do not necessarily imply that a defendant accepts any wrongdoing. Bish said she could not discuss detailed terms of the agreement with Merrill Lynch.

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