Merrill Says Fulfilled Obligation in Sex-Discrimination Suit

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Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER) is asking a court to let it out of an obligation to find former broker Hydie Sumner a job, saying she has turned down a management position the company has offered.

The standoff has left Merrill unable to close the door on one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from a crush of sex-discrimination lawsuits against the firm in the late 1990s.

Sumner won a $2.2 million claim against Merrill in 2004, after arguing the firm denied her a spot in its management-training program. In July 2005, an arbitration panel said the firm had to rehire her as a financial consultant and admit her to its Management Assessment Center, which evaluates and prepares candidates for managerial posts.

Merrill instead has offered Sumner direct entry into a management position — associate director at the firm's East Bay complex in Oakland, Calif. — and said in a recent filing with the arbitration panel that the offer should satisfy its obligation.

Sumner, who worked at Merrill in San Antonio as a broker from 1991 to 1997 and was one of the hundreds of litigants in a 1998 gender-discrimination suit against the firm, explored the option but ultimately turned it down twice.

She is concerned that people who would report to her would think she didn't earn her management position if she doesn't go through Merrill's training program, said Linda Friedman, a lawyer at Stowell & Friedman who represents her.

"She doesn't want to be treated differently from other management candidates," Friedman said. "That would be a formula destined to fail."

Friedman said Sumner will respond to Merrill's claims by early October.

Merrill says it waived the management-course requirement for Sumner after she requested in March to be reinstated as a manager. The firm claims Sumner still would have received the training, guidance and feedback she sought.