Another Wall Street firm has found itself in a heated court battle over allegations of sexism.
Autonomous Research, a global research firm based out of London that specializes in financial stocks, is embroiled in a legal fight with a high-ranking female partner over claims of gender-pay discrimination and retaliation — and the battle is getting uglier.
At the heart of the conflict is the allegation by Erin Baskett, a managing partner who is also the firm’s chief compliance officer and chief financial officer in the US office, that she was routinely paid significantly less than male peers.
Baskett, who filed suit against the company and several senior executives in federal court nearly a year ago, alleges that after she raised concerns over the pay discrepancy, as well as what she alleges were compliance lapses with regulators, her claims were not taken seriously and senior executives began a “hostile and open campaign of retaliation against Ms. Baskett to force her out of the firm,” according to her complaint.
Autonomous CEO Erick Davis told Business Insider, “In addition to believing strongly we’ve done nothing wrong, we believe we’ll be vindicated through the courts, if necessary.”
He added that the firm had an open relationship with FINRA and that the regulator had levied no fines or sanctions against the firm.
Founded in 2009, Autonomous is considered a top independent research shop, ranked 10th in quality in the US by Institutional Investor and sixth in Europe. The firm, which has a staff of under 90 globally, is reportedly in talks to sell to the investment manager AllianceBernstein for $110 million, according to Financial News.
This isn’t the only high-profile court fight this year over allegations of sexism by a Wall Street firm. Earlier this year, the hedge fund giant Point72 Asset Management was sued by Lauren Bonner, the head of talent analytics at the fund, over her claims of gender-pay discrimination and a hostile work environment — a lawsuit that was put on hold in July after a judge sent it to private arbitration. Baskett and Bonner are represented by the law firm Wigdor.
Baskett, who first filed her suit in November, has continued to stay on at her job amid an acrimonious legal fight, which a judge ruled two weeks ago would proceed to the next phase of litigation.
Baskett’s allegations are detailed, complicated, and lengthy (the complaint runs 46 pages), but here are some of the key allegations from her complaint:
• Baskett joined the London-based Autonomous as a managing partner in 2012 to open up and build out the firm’s first US office in New York City.
• She set up compliance in the New York office and had enough success that she was asked in 2014 to additionally oversee compliance for the London office. Later in 2014, she was tasked with running compliance in the firm’s new Hong Kong office. She ran compliance globally in 2015.
• In addition to taking on more responsibilities, her work was commended and lauded in performance reviews.
• Baskett said she was underpaid compared with male colleagues — even those with less experience and less responsibility.
• She said she was paid 28% less than the suggested base salary for all partners, that a male managing partner with the same job was paid four times as much in total compensation in 2013, and that another “similarly-situated” partner earned 10 times as much as her that year.
• Male partners who started at the firm after her were paid two and a half to three times as much as Baskett in annual base salary, she said.
• Despite raising the issue with management as early as 2013, Baskett said her compensation had continued to lag that of male peers.
• Baskett began reporting what she alleges were regulatory lapses in recent years, which she says were often ignored or met with hostility by senior management.
• In late 2015 and early 2016, Baskett was demoted and replaced as global CCO by a female colleague with less experience and who lacked the necessary regulatory license.
• She says she wasn’t provided a satisfactory rationale for the demotion and was ultimately told by the London office’s CFO, Jonathan Firkins, that it was done to “teach you a lesson.”
• Baskett claims the gender discrimination wasn’t limited to her case and that gender-pay disparities are systemic at Autonomous.
That’s the thrust of Baskett’s side of the story. She claims she’s continued to face what she perceives as hostile and demeaning treatment by senior management since filing the suit — a claim Autonomous denies.
Thus far in court, Autonomous’ legal strategy has been to argue that the case should be dismissed out of hand because Baskett, as a partner and member of management, is an owner rather than an employee of the firm and thus isn’t entitled to discrimination protection.
Baskett has responded to that legal argument with her own, saying that she signed an “at will” employment contract, that she holds less than 1% in equity that is unvested and revocable, and that she earns no percentage of the company’s annual profits.
A US district judge a little over two weeks ago denied most of Autonomous’ motions to dismiss the claims at this time, sending the case toward the evidence-sharing discovery phase. The judge threw out one of Baskett’s claims, a whistle-blower retaliation argument made under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, noting that her regulatory complaints related to the firm’s “internal structure rather than fraud committed by a public company or on its shareholders.”
After a year of litigation, the saga doesn’t appear close to a conclusion, and it’s poised to get even uglier.
Because all the parties still work at the firm together, tensions haven’t abated. And apart from the battle in the courts, a separate internal public-relations battle is ongoing as well.
“It’s gotten a lot more hostile,” Baskett told Business Insider.
Davis says that’s not the case.
“We categorically deny any harassing or intimidating behavior or activity,” Davis told Business Insider. “We don’t stand for that as a partnership. We fully deny that that has happened or is happening.”
Both Davis and Baskett have sent firm-wide emails about the case since the judge’s recent decision, communicating their side of the story and interpretation of the latest developments to employees.
The parties are scheduled to meet in court this week to discuss next steps.