NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five black fire safety directors of West Indian descent sued Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch unit on Friday, accusing it of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, leading to their 2005 firings.
In a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, the men said they had worked for six to 17 years at Merrill's headquarters at the World Financial Center in New York, under contract with American Building Maintenance Inc but "ultimately" under Merrill's supervision and control. ABM is also a defendant.
The men said that after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Merrill employees made derogatory comments about their Caribbean accents, though they were native English speakers, and ordered them to attend an "English for Professionals Pronunciation Workshop" at nearby Pace University.
They said Merrill also reassigned their duties with the intent of humiliating them.
According to the complaint, while Merrill and ABM purported to fire the men because they could not perform their jobs, they were actually fired "because of their skin color and because they spoke with accents that pegged them as 'foreign.'"
Representatives of Bank of America and ABM declined immediate comment, saying they had not reviewed the complaint. Bank of America bought Merrill on January 1.
The plaintiffs are seeking their old jobs back, compensatory and punitive damages, and other remedies. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.
Bank of America shares closed Friday down 25 cents at $16.97 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The case is Carr v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan), No. 09-7825.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Dave Zimmerman, Gary Hill)