Merrill Broker in Michigan Files Age Discrimination Suit
A Michigan broker who moved from Merrill Lynch to Ameriprise Financial last month has sued his former firm, claiming that it harassed him with age-related comments to keep him from servicing a client who was dissatisfied with the branch’s producing manager.
In a lawsuit transferred this week to a federal court in Michigan’s Eastern District, Thomas M. Gray, 53, also claimed that he was being excluded from getting referrals from retired advisors as part of Merrill’s “downstream retirement” leads program.
“At Gray’s office, all financial advisors receive referrals through the Merrill referral program except Gray and another employee four years older than Gray, who are the oldest employees in the office,” said the suit, which was initially filed in state court on Sept. 1. The Clinton Township branch where Gray worked currently employs four advisors, according to its .
Merrill disagrees with the lawsuit’s allegations of age discrimination, breach of contract, tortious interference and negligence, a company spokesman said.
Gray, who joined Ameriprise’s independent channel on September 5, according to BrokerCheck, did not return a call for comment.
The lawsuit contends that a former broker in the branch had referred a customer who was not happy working with Steve Nofs, the branch manager, to Gray. After a delay, the account was transferred with an internal code showing that the transfer was “solicited” by Gray in violation of Merrill policy, the lawsuit contends.
His subsequent complaint to management that other producers had solicited his clients away from him “without ramification and indeed with the support of Merrill” induced a pattern of questions about his own plans to retire and about the age of his children that he beleived indicated a plan to fire him. The lawsuit also says that he formally removed from the referral program in September 2014.
The lawsuit says that after a broker who had been producing $1.2 million in fees left as recently as April 2017, the broker’s clients were assigned to younger advisors for solictation while Gray and the older advisor were given “closed accounts, worthless securities and small balance accounts.” It also says that former broker Dennis Drenikowski was terminated in 2015, when he was 56, and told by Nofs that it was “because of his age as his replacement was roughly 46.”
Neither Nofs nor Dreniskowski returned calls for comment.
Asking an employee when and if they plan to retire is not in itself improper but could add to a narrative of discrimination that Gray’s lawyers are trying to make, said George Miller, a awyer at Shustak Reynolds & Partners in San Diego who is not involved in thecase.
“Discrimination cases are always somewhat difficult to prove,” he said.
What could make an age discrimination case by a broker in his 50s difficult to prove is that the average age of brokers at large firms like Merrill is between 50 and 60.
In March, a 76-year old broker who had worked at Merrill on the West Coast for almost 50 years claimed he was terminated based on his age. A 63-year old Ameriprise employee-channel broker in Detroit sued the firm in August claiming it took away his assistant and encouraged to “take a good look at our retirement plan.” And a 75-year old broker in Philadelphia in July sued Wells Fargo claiming it trumped up a customer complaint to ease her out because of her age.
The Wells Fargo case was moved to arbitration, and the other two remain pending in court.
Over his 30-year Merrill career, Gray was subject to nine customer disputes, five of which have been settled and four of which were closed or denied, according to BrokerCheck. He is seeking compensatory and exemplary damages in excess of $50,000.