Morgan Stanley said it would contest a lawsuit by its former head of diversity who alleged she experienced and witnessed "systemic racial discrimination" against African Americans at the bank.
Marilyn Booker, who joined Morgan Stanley in 1994 and served as its first global head of diversity for 16 years, claims in her lawsuit that senior "white male-centric leadership" refused to adopt her plan to address racial bias at the firm and instead terminated her in December.
The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, comes as Wall Street and corporate America are facing tough questions about their commitment to diversity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd's death at police hands.
Ms. Booker opened her 47-page complaint by describing Morgan Stanley's response to Mr. Floyd's death, including a large contribution to the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund and the promotion of two black women to senior leadership committees. She noted that CEO James Gorman had described the present moment as a "turning point in race relations."
But she cast the bank's recent statements and actions as hypocritical in light of its alleged past conduct. "Clearly, black lives did not matter at Morgan Stanley," she said.
In a statement, Morgan Stanley spokeswoman Mary Claire Delaney said the bank strongly rejected Ms. Booker's claims and would "vigorously defend" the lawsuit.
"We are steadfast in our commitment to improve the diversity of our employees and have made steady progress -- while recognizing that we have further progress to make," Ms. Delaney said. "We will continue to advance our high-priority efforts to achieve a more diverse and inclusive firm."
Only 2.2% of Morgan Stanley's U.S. executives are black, according to company data. That number hasn't budged for the last three years. In her lawsuit, Ms. Booker says that only 41, or fewer than 3%, of the 1,382 managing directors the firm has named since 2012 are black.
Ms. Booker seeks a judgment that bars the bank from discriminating against her and other black women and asks for unspecified damages. She alleges she was fired in retaliation for complaining about discrimination, a violation of New York state and city law.