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Bankers' Trade Group A Hotbed For Bias, Ex-Exec Claims

Law360—Vin Gurrieri

A longtime executive at the American Bankers Association sued the trade association in Washington, D.C., court Thursday, alleging that women and minorities who work amid its “old boys’ club culture” are subjected to pervasive harassment and discrimination and that she was fired for speaking up about it.

Plaintiff Christine Walika, a former ABA executive vice president, alleged in her complaint that the trade association violated Washington’s Human Rights Act as well as the district’s Family and Medical Leave Act when it fired her in May.

After she raised her concerns about issues like race and gender discrimination and pay inequity that women at the trade association purportedly faced, Walika claims she “became the target of hostile treatment and retaliation” by male superiors and was ultimately fired despite years of exemplary performance.

“Although ABA markets itself as an organization that supports the advancement of women and people of color within the banking industry, behind the scenes, women and minorities are subjected to systemic discrimination and a culture of fear designed to deter them from reporting discrimination or otherwise advocating for equal opportunity,” the complaint said. “Ms. Walika’s experiences at the American Bankers Association reveal an outdated ‘old boys club’ culture where discrimination, harassment and retaliation against women, African-Americans and other minorities is standard.”

Walika, who worked at the trade association for about 25 years, said her firing stemmed in part due to a complaint she raised with the trade association’s human resources department in 2017 that then-COO Jeffrey Owen, who Walika claimed had a long history of sexist and verbally abusive behavior, was refusing to give a high-performing African-American woman a senior executive job title commensurate with work she was already doing because of her race.

That complaint fell on deaf ears and instead led to Walika being “punished … for daring to be so outspoken,” with the trade association’s leaders’ at first stripping away her responsibilities and then firing her after she sought to take medical leave for a surgery related to a prior bout with breast cancer, the lawsuit said.

But besides the treatment she endured, Walika’s complaint also included a wide range of other allegations about widespread discriminatory practices at the company.

She noted in her complaint that the ABA’s leadership ranks have been dominated by men throughout its nearly 145-year history, with women being “excluded” from top-tier positions and advancement opportunities. No women of color have ever ascended to the executive level Walika reached and no woman has ever served as the trade association’s top executive, according to the complaint.

Walika also claimed that she and other women at the organization have long been systemically underpaid, alleging in her complaint that a senior male leader once remarked to her that men got raises because “they had ‘family to support,’” while women “were ‘working for their jewelry.’”

Additionally, the former ABA executive claimed that numerous reports have been filed over a years-long period by women claiming they were sexually harassed or propositioned by high-profile male employees, but that those complaints were ignored and the men remained in the positions they held.

“We hope this lawsuit helps our client and other women in the financial industry feel confident that they can come forward and speak out against discrimination and harassment without fear of illegal retaliation,” Susan E. Huhta of Outten & Golden LLP, counsel for Walika, said.

A representative for the American Bankers Association wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Walika is represented by Susan E. Huhta,Cassandra W. Lenning and Mikael A. Rojas of Outten & Golden LLP.

Counsel information for the American Bankers Association wasn’t immediately available.

The case is Christine Walika v. American Bankers Association in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The case number was not immediately available.