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Veteran advisor sues Wells Fargo for age, sex discrimination

A veteran Wells Fargo advisor is suing the firm for gender and age discrimination, alleging a longstanding pattern of discriminatory treatment that comes as the latest smudge on an industry struggling to address well-documented gender imbalances.

Judith Bovitz, 69, brought the case against Wells Fargo Advisors in response to an allegedly forced transfer to an undesirable office, but she claims that over a decades-long career with the firm, she has repeatedly lost out on lucrative accounts that were assigned to younger, male advisors.

She alleges that a former boss at one point even remarked that he favored younger advisors, telling her: "They have what others in the office don't have – youth."

In a statement, Wells Fargo Advisors says that it "takes these allegations seriously and the company is reviewing."

Signage is displayed outside a Wells Fargo & Co. bank branch in Schaumburg, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Wells Fargo & Co. is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 13. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg
Signage is displayed outside a Wells Fargo & Co. bank branch in Schaumburg, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Wells Fargo & Co. is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 13. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg

The immediate cause of Bovitz's action was her transfer out of the Wells Fargo office in Albany, New York, to a less lucrative post in the Saratoga Springs office (the two cities are about 37 miles apart). That move, which she says dragged on for three months and landed her in a shabby office with worn furniture and no television set, came as retaliation for a complaint she lodged with Wells Fargo's human resources department, her lawsuit alleges.

Bovitz says that as recently as last April, but on other prior occasions as well, she had complained to the HR department that the accounts of brokers who left the company were disproportionately assigned to male advisors, ignoring her success with the firm. Bovitz says during her tenure at Wells Fargo, she amassed a book of business of more than $100 million, despite the systemic discrimination in the distribution of accounts.

"[W]hen brokers are separated from employment at Wells Fargo, the accounts are supposed to be distributed in an equitable manner amongst the remaining investment employees," Bovitz says in her complaint. "Instead, accounts are provided almost exclusively to male employees, most often younger male employees."

Bovitz alleges a similar pattern of discrimination with the assignment of new accounts.

Wells Fargo says that Bovitz was involved in the firm's routine procedure for reassigning accounts.

"We have a process for redistribution of client accounts following a financial advisor’s departure known as FABR (Financial Advisor Book Reassignment) and Ms. Bovitz participated in that process," the firm says.

Bovitz did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her case.

Bovitz's lawsuit comes at a time when the wealth management industry has struggled to reckon with systemic gender inequities that manifest in sexual harassment in the workplace and harsher treatment of female advisors for compliance failures than their male counterparts. A team of academic researchers analyzed the compliance disparity in a 2017 study, finding that women are much less likely to break the rules and to be repeat offenders than men, yet they are nonetheless disciplined more harshly by their employers. The authors of that study said that of the large advisory firms, they found the highest rates of discrimination at Wells Fargo.

Bovitz charges that Wells Fargo's HR department took no remedial action in response to her claims of discrimination, but instead, the firm opted to transfer her to the Saratoga Springs office in what she describes as an act of retaliation. At the new office, Bovitz says that she was issued "old, scratched furniture which is an embarrassment when meeting with clients," and deprived of "basic necessities to successfully complete her job."

She is alleging that Wells Fargo violated the Civil Rights Act, Discrimination in Employment Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Bovitz is seeking damages, interest and legal fees, as well as court supervision of Wells Fargo to ensure that it complies with the relevant statutes. The case is pending in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Bovitz has spent her entire financial services career at Wells Fargo and predecessor firm Prudential Securities, according to FINRA BrokerCheck records.

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