Merrill’s sex-discrimination troubles just won’t go away. But this time it isn’t a woman raising a stink. Blas Catalani, a former sales manager at Merrill Lynch’s San Antonio office, is suing a female ex-broker and her lawyer on grounds that the two women conspired to get him fired.
Catalani filed a complaint in a Bexar County, Texas, district court against former Merrill rep Hydie Sumner and her attorney Linda Friedman for allegedly trashing his reputation to upper management in an effort to break his contract so that Sumner could take his job. Catalani is seeking $8 million in damages and forfeited pay. On Aug. 29, Catalani also filed a discrimination complaint against Merrill with the Texas Workforce Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company dismissed him based on his gender.
“His allegations are simply untrue,” says Bill Haldin, a Merrill spokesman. Merrill plans to respond accordingly.
Ironically, an NASD arbitration panel awarded Sumner and Friedman $2.2 million in a sex-discrimination settlement against Merrill in 2004. Sumner, who worked as a broker in Merrill’s San Antonio branch from 1991 to 1997, spent seven years in and out of court testifying that she was subject to lewd and discriminatory behavior at the hands of management and colleagues. The case was part of a large class action that would eventually cost Merrill $100 million to settle claims. Surprisingly, Sumner wanted to return to Merrill and the branch to finish her career. In 2005, she won that right with another arbitration panel ruling.
In August 2005, Friedman allegedly sent emails to several managers at Merrill “questioning Merrill Lynch’s employment of [Catalani] and making disparaging remarks concerning plaintiff with the intent and design that Merrill Lynch discharge [Catalani],” according to the complaint. Essentially, the complaint argues that Merrill used Catalani as a patsy in its attempt to make Sumner go away after years of tying up its legal department and costing the firm hundreds of millions of dollars. The complaint further argues that Catalani “sustained damages, including the lost benefits of the employment contract in question, mental anguish, and injury to his reputation.” Catalani’s lawyer, Ron Bair, could not be reached for comment at press time.
Friedman did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. Sources say that Sumner and Catalani have a history of conflict that dates back to their days at Prudential Securities. In 2001, an arbitration panel awarded Catalani $86,000 and expunged his record following a complaint filed against Prudential that alleged he was wrongfully terminated after making a suggestive remark to a female colleague. A source who knows Catalani’s former manager says the manager never had any problems with him and that Merrill knew of the issue when they hired him.
Despite Catalani’s clean record, he still faces an uphill battle. “Most reverse discrimination cases are not won because there is a higher standard both legally and in the eyes of jurors,” says one employment lawyer who asked not to be identified. But the sex-discrimination card could be a red herring or an attempt to grab headlines. “It’s more of a case of wrongful termination than anything else,” says one recruiter.
For more on the Merrill Lynch/Hydie Sumner saga, please read:
"Where the Women At?"
"Merrill Broker Expects Ruling Soon"
"Merrill and Hydie Sumner, Still Can’t Work It Out"