Ex-Oppenheimer Broker Wins Bias Suit Over Minimum Wage Offer

A former stock broker at Oppenheimer Holdings Inc. (OPY)’s European unit won a discrimination lawsuit after managers discussed cutting her salary to the U.K. legal minimum of 6.80 pounds ($10.90) an hour, then fired her.

Isabel Sitz was “subject to sex discrimination in her dismissal and leading up to it,” the London employment tribunal said in an Oct. 16 decision. The court didn’t rule on compensation.

“I think by law, we need to give you a statutory salary, right?” Oppenheimer’s European chief executive officer, Max Lami, told Sitz in a 2012 mid-year review after the loss of a key client and a decline in revenue, according a conversation cited in the judgment. “You cannot go to zero.”

Sitz, who left work because of stress and was fired the following month, took from the meeting that she should take minimum wage or face being let go. Lami told tribunal judges the pay cut was her suggestion, according to the ruling.

Financial-services workers from traders to senior executives have used London’s employment tribunals to contest their treatment and try to recover lost compensation. Plaintiffs haven’t had much success in a climate where sympathy for highly paid bankers is hard to find.

The tribunal rejected her claim that race discrimination had played a part in her dismissal.

Possible Appeal

“We are proud that both our male and female employees, comprising over a dozen nationalities, testified that the company does not engage in discrimination in the workplace,” Oppenheimer said in an e-mailed statement. The company said it is disappointed by the decision and may appeal.

Andrej Pungerl, a lawyer at the the firm representing Sitz, said the ruling reflected the “appalling treatment suffered at Oppenheimer.” If she hadn’t been discriminated against “her trajectory was that of a top, senior broker.”

The finding of discrimination means the usual cap on damages for unfair dismissal, about 70,000 pounds, won’t apply. Pungerl said he couldn’t say how much was being sought in the case and that it was filed as a matter of principle, not for financial gain.

Sitz, who covered U.S. equities and financial firms, earned about 95,000 pounds in 2012. The minimum wage would have given her an annual salary of about 15,000 pounds. Lami had talked about underperformance at the unit and “changing the structure of compensation,” tribunal judges said.

‘Sweetheart’

The tribunal found that the minimum wage wasn’t discussed with male colleagues, and that they were given more help getting new clients. Oppenheimer didn’t properly investigate allegations of discrimination, and failed to address sexist e-mails, the judges said. Sitz was called “sweetheart” by a male colleague, according to the ruling.

She told Lami that male brokers had more accounts in a June 2012 phone conversation cited in the tribunal judgment. “That’s because I am a woman,” she said. “As simple as that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kit Chellel in London at cchellel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net

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