Bank of America Faces Race, Discrimination Lawsuit
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the broadcast - why the presidential candidates probably won't be kissing your baby anymore.
But first, what does equal opportunity mean? That's a question that emerges from a recent lawsuit filed by a group of black employees and former employees at Bank of America, the nation's second largest bank.
Some of the complaints by these account managers and financial advisers are once we've heard before. They say that Bank of America did not give them equal pay or a fair chance at promotions, and that the bank gave white employees more support, training and better opportunities. But part of the suit raises a novel issue about the modern workplace. The black employees say when they complained about being assigned only to less affluent and minority communities, Bank of America officials said they were just trying to serve customers who are more comfortable dealing with bankers or brokers of their own race.
Bank of America declined our request for an interview, but they did issue a statement, which we will read later in the broadcast.
In a few minutes, we'll also talk with an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates these kinds of complaints.
But first, we're going to hear from Darnley Stewart. She represents the employees suing Bank of America. Darnley Stewart, thanks for joining me.
Ms. DARNLEY STEWART (Lawyer, Bernstein, Litowitz, Berger & Grossmann): My pleasure.
MARTIN: What made your clients come to believe they were being discriminated against? Do they know each other? Do they compare notes?
Ms. STEWART: There are at least two of them who knew each other, and they compared notes. The others came to us on their own, and I'm actually not sure -I don't think they know each other. What's interesting about this case is these people come from very different places. We have people from - who worked in Florida. We have people who work in St. Louis, people who work in Atlanta, all with very similar experiences.
MARTIN: According to the complaint that you filed - that when - these employees complained and said, what gives for the assignments I'm getting? Bank of America said that on matters as personal as finances that the customers want to work with someone they can relate to. Is that a defense?
Ms. STEWART: It is not a defense. But let me also be clear, the allegation is actually that what they were told was the bank believes that the clients are more comfortable dealing with someone of their own race, not that the clients actually feel that way. So I just want to make it clear that they were told that this is what the bank believes.
MARTIN: I think that's an important question. Was there any data to indicate that? For example, did they have customers who had come to them and said I don't see enough people who look like me in this branch? And I would give you my business, but I want to see more diversity.
Ms. STEWART: No. My understanding were just - at the beginning of the case - my understanding, there wasn't actual evidence that this was said by customers. It was the bank's feeling that this was the case.
MARTIN: What if clients were to come forward to say that I'd rather work with an African-American financial advisor because I don't necessarily think these other guys, like us, know where I'm coming from? What if a woman says, I really would rather work with a female banker or broker because I think they would have a better understanding of me as a client? Is that a defense?
Ms. STEWART: There's a long history of what we call customer preference cases, Michel. And in the early days, it went a certain way. In more recent times, they've gone in a different directions, which is that is not permissible. And I think a good example would be only having men waiters in a restaurant or only having female waiters in a Hooters. These are perceived to be customer preferences - only wanting your employees to have a certain image to suit your idea of what the customer base would be. And a good example of that would be the recent case against Abercrombie and Fitch, where Abercrombie said our image is blond hair, blue-eyed, good-looking, all-American kids, and we really don't need African-Americans working in our stores.
MARTIN: But what if it's not a question of image, it's a question of comfort level? For example, if you were - I know this isn't the case - but if you were a patient looking for a doctor, I don't think it's uncommon for people to look for a doctor who may resemble him or her demographically for reasons of sort of comfort and a sense of sort of privacy. And so I don't know whether this question's previously been litigated in the financial the area. Maybe you can tell if it has. But at what point does customer preference spill over into discrimination?
Ms. STEWART: Well, this is a perfect example of where it does, especially where there really, I don't know of any evidence that the customers have actually said this. And if a client says to you I really prefer having a Caucasian handle my finances, I really don't want a black person, it is not legal for you then to say like, well, that's okay. We're going to see to that. It's not legal.
MARTIN: What if it's the other way? What if he's a member of a minority group saying, I just feel - we would feel more comfortable with somebody who shares my background, because I think they might have an understanding of my history and my feelings about money?
Ms. STEWART: I understand that…
MARTIN: What about the other way?
Ms. STEWART: Of course, it's understandable. I think it's equally impermissible.
MARTIN: Now we were told by Bank of America that they were not ready to have anyone speak about this. They were not ready to make anyone available to us, but they sent us this statement. I'm going to read it, and you can respond if you like. The statement says that Bank of America has a strong track record of hiring and developing associates. We've been recognized for our success in creating and succoring a diverse and inclusive workplace. The discriminatory conduct alleged in the complaint would violate Bank of America's policies and values which prohibit discrimination. We intend to vigorously defend against the claims made in this lawsuit.
Any response that you care to offer?
Ms. STEWART: We'll learn more about their defenses when we get into the litigation. I can tell you that this lawsuit has really raised a lot of interest. We have received hundreds of phone calls from Bank of America employees who don't feel they have been treated equally.
MARTIN: I kind of glossed over some of the other issues in the complaint. So just to make sure that we've covered it adequately, I focused on this whole question of the territories or…
Ms. STEWART: The racial steering?
MARTIN: That - yeah, that the black employees were generally assigned to predominantly black areas, and white employees were predominantly assigned to predominantly, you know, white areas. And part of the complaint is that the predominantly white areas were - just based on the numbers - more likely to be more lucrative.
Ms. STEWART: That's correct.
MARTIN: Is that the issue the rose up for them? Or are there other issues that you want to bring to our attention before we let you go?
Ms. STEWART: Well, I think it's always - I mean, I think there are a number of issues they had. That was the one that they felt like they kept banging their heads against the wall on. Mind you, they're getting moved, often, from their partnerships. They're having their sales assistants moved often. They were being starved of resources at different times. I had one client who moved to a new office, a whole new branch, and was never given a phone or any business cards.
But I think it's essentially - the one thing that all of them shared, that was this issue of why are you invariably assigning me to the low income, high minority neighborhoods and, you know, always told we hate to do it, but we really just think that this isn't going to be a more comfortable situation for our clients?
MARTIN: And just to clarify, we're not talking about tellers. You know, we're not talking about people who just do, sort of, transactions. We're talking about people whose job was to have - to manage people's assets in a more personal way, to be assigned as personal bankers or as financial advisors, right?
Ms. STEWART: Yeah. And that's a very important point. These are people who are trained professionals. These are people, some of whom have MBAs. These are the people who work for very successfully as bankers and financial advisors in other companies both before and after their employment at Bank of America. These are professionals who really deserve and have earned the right to service clients in high net worth areas.
MARTIN: And what's the next step in this case?
Ms. STEWART: Next step will be serving discovery requests and getting on with earning what the facts are from the defendant's perspective.
MARTIN: Darnley Stewart is a partner at Bernstein, Litowitz, Berger and Grossman, and she represents a group of African-American employees at Bank of America who have pressed a discrimination complaint against the nation's second largest bank. Darnley, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. STEWART: My pleasure.
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