Lovells sees off claim against Merrill Lynch

Lovells is celebrating after winning last year’s most publicised employment case, successfully defending a multimillion-pound sex discrimination claim for Merrill Lynch.

Investment banker Stephanie Villalba had claimed £7.5m against her former employers, alleging sex discrimination, unequal pay due to gender and unfair dismissal.

A Croydon employment tribunal dismissed the sex discrimination and unequal pay claims on 22 December, but allowed Villalba’s
claims for unfair dismissal and some elements of an unlawful victimisation claim.

The tribunal found that Villalba had not been discriminated against because of her gender, and said that any differences in pay between her and male colleagues were due to the nature of the work they performed.

However, in an unusual move, the tribunal said that comparison between the salaries of Villalba and international colleagues was permitted. The judgment of the tribunal on this point of law is not binding, but it sets a precedent that could be used in other unequal pay cases involving international organisations such as
Merrill Lynch.

Lovells employment partner Lisa Mayhew told The Lawyer she was “thrilled” with the outcome, adding: “It’s a major victory. We and the client always believed in the fundamentals of the case, which were that this wasn’t about gender discrimination but was about performance.”

A costs hearing is expected this month. Villalba can be compensated by up to £55,000 for the unfair dismissal claim. Both sides have 42 days from the date of judgment to appeal.

Lovells instructed Nicholas Underhill QC of Fountain Court Chambers. James Davies, joint head of employment at Lewis Silkin, represented Villalba, with Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose as counsel.