Voya steered business to white agents, Black advisors say in lawsuit

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Six Black former registered representatives of Voya Financial Advisors allege the firm discriminated against them by steering business to white agents.

Voya’s retirement advisors distribution channel provided more leads and opportunities to white reps and agencies and retaliated against the Black advisors when they complained, according to a lawsuit filed by O.V. Williams in Tampa, Florida, on Sept. 22 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

The case revolves around 457(b) and 403(b) clients from state government agencies, hospitals and colleges.

Among other allegations, Williams and the five other reps say the disparate treatment for them included: Requiring that they split portions of their sales with white agents, receiving less access than white-owned agencies to make their pitches to potential crossover clients and not getting equal training, leads and other pertinent information.

Voya “has a pattern and practice of discriminating against its Black agents in favor of white agents who are geographically located hundreds of miles away from the Central Florida servicing area,” the lawsuit states.

Spokeswoman Laura Maulucci emailed a statement in response to the allegations.

“While we cannot comment on a pending matter, Voya is fully committed to ethical business practices as well as diversity and inclusion for all,” Maulucci said.

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Black Americans comprise more than 13% of the U.S. population, and about 7% of personal financial advisors in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.

Discrimination cases aren’t rare in the industry. In June, a former Morgan Stanley global head of diversity filed a lawsuit against the firm alleging her efforts to increase representation of Black advisors at the wirehouse went unsupported, and at times were undermined, by company leaders.

Five of the six plaintiffs in the Voya case left the firm in 2019 to affiliate with GWN Securities, while the sixth, Johnnie Hall, is registered with an RIA called HGA Capital Management, according to FINRA BrokerCheck. Williams, his mother, Lyde-Whitfield and Robinson are now with Daytona Beach-based O.V. Williams & Associates. The other plaintiff, Kimberly Saunders, affiliated with GWN last November as well.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal first reported the lawsuit. The allegations focus on state, health and educational employee contracts the plaintiffs say Voya “discriminately steered” away from them to white agents in a way that limited their access and production. The conduct affected everything from leads to compensation structure to the transition of Williams’ book of business upon his exit last May, the lawsuit says.

‘Segregated’ table

In June 2018, Williams sent an email requesting a meeting with a regional vice president and other superiors to discuss “contrived allegations” against plaintiff Marcus Robinson, as well as “preferential treatment given to white agents, the lack of support given to the Black agents, the unfair playing field and inequities among Black agents,” the lawsuit states.

For example, the reps allege white agents arranged for a community college holding a benefits fair to place Robinson and his mother at a separate, “segregated” table in the back of a room. They further allege that the company gave the white agents “exquisite giveaways, prizes and Voya paraphernalia,” while failing to provide the same for the Black agents at their table, the lawsuit says.

In another episode alleged in the case, Voya mandated that Williams and Gwendolyn Robinson pay back a “parasitic, discriminatory fee-split” of 10% of revenue with a white agent — an arrangement the firm didn’t require of white reps. The Black reps also accuse the firm of favoring white agencies in regional arrangements, leaving them at a disadvantage.

The meeting with superiors never happened, according to the reps. Instead, they say, the firm terminated Marcus Robinson based on false allegations and “constructively” terminated his mother, Lyde-Whitfield and Williams. Williams refers to his discharge from the firm as an act of retaliation for complaining about the unfair treatment, according to the lawsuit

In the filing, Williams and the other plaintiffs allege 11 counts of race discrimination and retaliation against the Voya independent broker-dealer. They are seeking damages and attorney fees. One plaintiff also filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last November, according to the lawsuit.

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Lawsuits Racial Bias Compliance Racism Diversity and equality Independent BDs Voya Voya Financial Advisors