Merrill Lynch faces £7.8m sex bias case

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The Independent Online

A senior female employee of Merrill Lynch who was fired last year will begin a legal case against the bank tomorrow for sex discrimination in which she is seeking $14m (£7.8m) in compensation - the biggest demand to be considered by a British employment tribunal.

A senior female employee of Merrill Lynch who was fired last year will begin a legal case against the bank tomorrow for sex discrimination in which she is seeking $14m (£7.8m) in compensation - the biggest demand to be considered by a British employment tribunal.

Stephanie Villalba's career, which spanned 17 years at the Wall Street giant, came to an abrupt end last July after the bank decided she was not equal to her highly responsible role, heading Merrill's private client business in Europe.

Ms Villalba, 42, who is American and lives in a £4.5m house in Belgravia, central London, alleges she was bullied and forced out of her job due to sexual discrimination. Her case is the latest in a long line of court battles initiated by women working in the City on the grounds that they have been paid far less than their male equivalents, and have had to suffer inappropriate remarks from colleagues.

But many in the City are treating Ms Villalba's dispute with Merrill as a test case. This is because of the size of the payout being demanded and because the bank appears determined to fight its former employee through the employment tribunal, despite the publicity it will attract and the fact that the bank will have to fly in some of its most senior bankers to give evidence.

Ms Villalba, who was paid $750,000 in 2001, is fighting to force Merrill to hand over e-mails, notes and other personal data which it had compiled about her. She is alleging unfair dismissal, sex discrimination and unequal pay.

Ms Villalba's relationship with the bank turned sour after she was promoted to be in charge of Merrill's European private client operation in May 2002. Five months later, she discovered that a new member of the chain of command - Ausaf Abbas, who had been running private client operations in Japan - was being brought in above her. It is likely that Mr Abbas and Raymundo Yu - who is in charge of all of Merrill's private client business outside the US - will have to give evidence at the employment tribunal in Croydon, south London. The case is expected to last six weeks.

Other sex discrimination cases brought by female bankers include Louise Barton, who won an out-of-court settlement against the securities house Investec last year. Kay Swinburne, an ex-employee of Deutsche Bank, took the bank to court after being called a "bit of skirt". She also settled privately for an estimated £1m.

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