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Morgan Stanley Beats Discrimination Case Back to Arbitration

By Miriam Rozen October 4, 2018

A Manhattan federal judge has issued a ruling compelling one of Morgan Stanley’s former financial advisors to take his race discrimination claims against the wirehouse to a Finra arbitration panel, rather than allowing the advisor to present those allegations in a public court.

On Oct. 3 the judge agreed with Morgan Stanley’s arguments that the firm had successfully changed its employee arbitration agreements in 2015 by sending its employees a mass email. That email proposed class-action discrimination claims be argued before Finra panels.

John Lockette, an African American, wanted to argue his race case against his ex-employer in federal court. Before Morgan Stanley terminated him, Lockette had been promoted to a management position.

With his lawsuit, Lockette made arguments similar to those made by other former employees pursuing both race and gender discrimination cases against Morgan Stanley. Lockette and others argued that Morgan Stanley’s mass emails in 2015 failed to give employees enough notice of significant changes to their employment conditions. They also argued the emails were too confusing to be deemed effective.

But U.S. District Judge John Koeltl, who is presiding in Lockette’s case, rejected those arguments. Specifically in his ruling Koeltl rejected arguments that Lockette had neither received nor seen the email, or that the email itself was misleading, since it came with the word “CARE” – an acronym for “Convenient Access to Resolutions for Employees” in the subject line.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision in this case. The Firm is strongly committed to non-discrimination and looks forward to addressing this dispute on the merits,” a Morgan Stanley spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement after Koeltl issued the ruling.

Lawyers from the New York office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius represent Morgan Stanley.

For his part, Lockette expresses disappointment. He is evaluating his options to appeal Koeltl’s ruling.

“I am very doubtful my claims will be given a fair hearing in that setting,” Lockette says about the Finra panel. “This is all kind of contrived in a way that is pro-corporate,” he adds.

Lockette is represented by Linda Friedman and Suzanne Bish, partners in Stowell & Friedman, a law firm which has won more than $300 million in class action settlements based on discrimination lawsuits it filed against other wirehouses, including Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo.

Koeltl’s ruling reflects the pro-arbitration slant that has developed with recent Supreme Court precedents, according to his lawyer Friedman. To deter similar rulings, Congress will have to act and pass laws to stop the pro-arbitration movement, she says. “If you can assert you sent an email and that alone is enough to be stripped of federally-secured legal rights,” then legislators need to take action, Friedman says.

Morgan Stanley emailed the message with “CARE” in the subject line in 2015 to more than 15,000 employees, including financial advisors. The email conveyed to the employees — clearly enough for them to understand — that they had a limited-time opportunity to opt out of a revised and more expansive employment arbitration agreement, according to arguments Morgan Stanley’s management made in Lockette’s and multiple other lawsuits.