Trade group accused of discrimination

Mar 13, 2006 @ 12:01 am

By Gary S. Mogel

NEW YORK - One of the premier life insurance trade associations has been accused of racial discrimination and of maintaining a "glass ceiling" that has prevented blacks from being hired or promoted into high-level positions.

In a complaint filed this month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta, Leon Morris alleged that the Life Office Management Association refused to consider his application for the position of director of business development because of his race.

"The dues and fees paid to LOMA by 1,200 member insurance companies go toward supporting that discrimination," Mr. Morris said. The member insurers are perpetuating a "relic of racist times," he added.

Prior to filing the suit, Mr. Morris demanded in a Feb. 17 letter to LOMA a "monetary settlement of $480,000 and for a position within LOMA at a level of no less than second vice president."

LOMA vice president of human resources Michele LaBouff, who is handling inquiries about the suit, didn't return a call seeking comment. She is named as a defendant in the suit, along with other association executives and its board.

A person who answered a call to LOMA chief executive Thomas Donaldson said that he was out of town and couldn't be reached.

Representatives for several LOMA member companies said that merely paying dues to the association doesn't make them responsible for, or indicate support for, its employment practices. Nearly all life insurers in the United States are LOMA members, as are many foreign insurers.

Class action possible

In his suit, Mr. Morris claims that Atlanta-based LOMA since its founding in 1924 has fostered a climate that keeps blacks out of high-level managerial and executive positions. The association's 170-person staff has only one black manager, who is in charge of the mailroom, according to the complaint.

Although Mr. Morris - who filed the case without an attorney - didn't originally intend to start a class action, he said, seven current or former LOMA employees have contacted him about possibly joining the suit. He added that as many as 15 current or former employees may join and that there could be many rejected applicants whom he doesn't know who also would be potential plaintiffs.

"Many of the existing employees are fearful of making formal statements at this time," Mr. Morris said.

"There is no one here right now who can comment on that; they are all out of town," said a person who answered another call placed to LOMA's human resources department.

Mr. Morris worked for LOMA as a senior associate - a lower-level job - between 1991 and 1995, so the association is aware of his race, he noted.

Overqualified?

During his employment with LOMA, Mr. Morris said, he received "excellent" performance reviews and left the job voluntarily. He added that he wasn't discriminated against because of his race during that time period, when a different management regime was in place.

According to Mr. Morris, Ms. LaBouff and other LOMA officers involved in the hiring process last month told him that he was "overqualified" for the position for which he had applied, and refused to grant his request for an interview.

As of last week, the open position still was listed on LOMA's website. The job description requires, among other things, "three to five years of business experience in an environment such as financial services, insurance industry experience a plus."

According to Mr. Morris, he has all the skills and experience listed in the job description.

In addition to four years of insurance experience with LOMA, he has the chartered life underwriter and several other financial industry professional designations. He has worked for an Atlanta fee-only capital management firm bearing his name since he left LOMA in 1995.

He is also executive director of the Atlanta-based Mortgage Institute for Financial Services Professionals Inc., which trains financial advisers how to incorporate mortgage brokerage services into their businesses. Before joining LOMA, he was an independent financial planner for seven years.

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