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Merrill employee sues firm over sexual harassment, discrimination

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A Merrill Lynch employee is suing the firm after she says she was subject to discrimination and sexual harassment that included colleagues making sexual jokes and clients "asking her to sit on their laps" among other misconduct.

Jean McCrave Baxter, who worked as a relationship manager at the firm, says in a complaint filed in federal court earlier this month that clients used vulgar language and called her "sweetie" and "honey." Some of Baxter's colleagues in Merrill Lynch's North Providence office also asked her out on dates, according to the complaint.

A Merrill Lynch spokesman declined to comment on the case, but in a legal filing, the firm rejected Baxter's accusations.

The complaint is the latest to be filed against a major brokerage firm, alleging a hostile work environment. A former branch administrator at Edward Jones recently filed a lawsuit against that firm claiming she was sexually harassed by two colleagues and that the firm did little to prevent and address such misconduct.

There is a long history of sexual misconduct within finance in particular, including Smith Barney and the so-called boom-boom room in the 1990s. More recently, a SourceMedia survey found that inappropriate and hostile behavior is a persistent problem; one-third of women in wealth management reported a high prevalence of sexual misconduct in the workplace, according to the survey, which included 385 professionals in the industry.

The #MeToo movement has also raised the issue's profile in broader culture. Casino moguls, Hollywood titans and others have been toppled as allegations of years of abuse, misconduct and ill-behavior have surfaced. The movement has prompted a reevaluation of how society assesses accusations of misconduct.

In Baxter's case, the alleged discrimination extended beyond maltreatment from clients and co-workers. Baxter, who joined the company in 2011, was denied opportunities to advance at Merrill Lynch, according to her lawsuit. While young male colleagues were hired and promoted, Baxter was denied promotions and the ability to attain additional licenses that would have moved her career forward, the lawsuit says.

"In 2015, seven new additions were added to plaintiff’s team; all males and all being allowed to obtain additional licenses. Plaintiff made many requests, was denied the opportunity to take the tests to obtain licenses," according to the lawsuit.

Baxter took her complaints to management in late 2014 and early 2015, but the issues went unaddressed, according to the lawsuit.

In her suit, she is seeking back pay, damages, attorney’s fees and a permanent injunction against Merrill to prohibit future acts of gender discrimination.

Baxter has been on a disability-related medical leave of absence since December 2015, according to the court filing.

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