City Staff May Think Twice After Merrill Win

The news that Stephanie Villalba, the former senior Merrill Lynch executive, lost her discrimination case against the firm comes as no surprise. The evidence just did not seem to support her claims. And although Ms Villalba will lose a few bob as a result of her efforts to take Merrill to tribunal, she can probably afford it. The more important thing about this case, however, is that it sends out a very strong message to City staff thinking of making a claim against their firm - make sure that your case has strong foundations. Don't believe those ambulance chasers who will whisper in your ear that your employer will simply roll over and pay up or that a tribunal will bend over backwards to rule your way.

Merrill has had victory in two high profile tribunal cases in 2004, and both DrKW and BNP Paribas brought home significant victories too. Winnable cases rarely go to trial - so if you make a move and your firm indicates that it is happy to see you at tribunal, beware! You won't have an easy ride. Bloomberg quotes John Evans, an employment lawyer at Coudert Brothers, who said that the Villalba verdict 'is not going to stop spurious claims, but it make make people pause before piling on additional claims in an effort to add noughts to the judgement'.

Now Merrill's Human Resource Department came in for some stick from the tribunal - the tribunal described its conduct as 'unprofessional'. This writer is unclear exactly what the tribunal meant when it said this. Hindsight, we all know, is a wonderful thing. And, after all, Ms Villalba was just one of the firm's 6,000 European employees. The tribunal also had a pop at Merrill's bonus allocation process, which it described as 'haphazard and subjective' with a 'high degree of favouritism'. In truth, we all know, that's life throughout the City and it is difficult to see how things can practically be managed any other way. Merrill's bonus allocation process is no worse than anyone else's. And, in any case, HR usually has little to do with bonus allocation.

Overall, then, the verdict in the Villalba case was a good one for Merrill Lynch. Almost total vindication - Ms Villalba won her charge of unfair dismissal and will eventually receive a maximum of $106,000 in damages. She was claiming $14.5m in total. And a lesson, too, perhaps, for all those staff thinking of taking their firm to the cleaners by way of a tribunal claim - only fools rush in. Look before you book!

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