Emily Flitter, The New York Times, December 11, 2019
Jimmy Kennedy earned $13 million during his nine-year career as a player in the National Football League. He was the kind of person most banks would be happy to have as a client.
But when Mr. Kennedy tried to become a “private client” at JPMorgan Chase, an elite designation that would earn him travel discounts, exclusive event invitations and better deals on loans, he kept getting the runaround.
At first, he didn’t understand why. Then, last fall, he showed up at his local JPMorgan branch in Arizona, and an employee offered an explanation.
“You’re bigger than the average person, period. And you’re also an African-American,” the employee, Charles Belton, who is black, told Mr. Kennedy. “We’re in Arizona. I don’t have to tell you about what the demographics are in Arizona. They don’t see people like you a lot.” Mr. Kennedy recorded the conversation and shared it with The New York Times.
Mr. Peters started his career at JPMorgan as a salesman in the bank’s credit cards division. After about eight years in various roles, he was promoted to a financial adviser position in Phoenix in 2016. His job was to help bank customers prudently invest their money.
He was working in a JPMorgan branch in the affluent Sun City West area of Phoenix. He sought a promotion to become a private client adviser, a job that would have let him work with wealthier and more lucrative clients.
Instead, Mr. Peters was moved out of an office at the heart of the branch where he worked with other financial advisers and was relegated to a windowless room in the back.
In April 2017, one of his bosses, Frank Venniro, told Mr. Peters that another manager had accused him of taking customers’ files home at night, a violation of the bank’s code of conduct. Mr. Peters denied it, and Mr. Venniro accepted that he was telling the truth, according to a recording of the conversation. But, he added, Mr. Peters needed to be more cognizant of how his colleagues perceived him.
In February 2018, Mr. Peters was transferred from the Sun City West branch to a JPMorgan branch in a less wealthy neighborhood.
One day, Mr. Peters met Mr. Kennedy, then 38. Mr. Kennedy had played for five N.F.L. teams as a defensive tackle. In 2011, he had joined the New York Giants.
Mr. Kennedy retired and later moved to Phoenix. JPMorgan bankers had been courting his business, but he hadn’t liked the financial advisers the bank had proposed to manage his investments. Then he met Mr. Peters. “The chemistry was just so real because he knew exactly what I needed to do,” Mr. Kennedy said in an interview.
In the summer of 2018, Mr. Kennedy gradually moved $800,000 to the bank. Mr. Peters and a colleague promised he would get “private client” status, which was reserved for accounts with more than $250,000.
Landing a wealthy client like Mr. Kennedy was a big win for Mr. Peters, but he was anxious about being targeted by his superiors.
Less than two weeks later, JPMorgan agreed to pay $24 million to end a class-action lawsuit brought by other black employees who said the company had discriminated against them — in some cases by isolating them from colleagues and dumping them in poorer branches.
On Oct. 5, Mr. Venniro took Mr. Peters to a meeting room and said he was being fired. Mr. Venniro said he didn’t know why. “I’m just given marching orders,” Mr. Venniro told him, according to a recording of the conversation.
Mr. Peters filed a discrimination claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the civil rights division of the Arizona attorney general’s office, accusing JPMorgan of racial discrimination. JPMorgan denied that and said Mr. Peters was fired for improperly assigning credit for a new client to an employee who managers didn’t think deserved it.
“We stand by our decision to terminate Peters,” Ms. Wexler, the spokeswoman, said. “The facts are indisputable.”
Mr. Peters’s termination left Mr. Kennedy in the lurch. A number of his transactions were frozen or not carried out. In one case, $92,000 of Mr. Kennedy’s money that was supposed to go into a new investment product ended up in a holding account, inaccessible to Mr. Kennedy. (Ms. Wexler said the problems were caused by administrative errors.)
JPMorgan assigned him a new financial adviser, Mr. Belton. He struck Mr. Kennedy as inexperienced. He was black, and Mr. Kennedy felt that was the only reason they’d been paired. Mr. Kennedy said he began recording their conversations so he could get feedback from other people about Mr. Belton’s financial recommendations.
Mr. Kennedy had been under the impression that he had been granted the coveted “private client” status that Mr. Peters had promised. When Mr. Kennedy learned that was not the case, he complained to Mr. Belton — and then to Mr. Venniro.
Mr. Belton warned Mr. Kennedy not to talk to Mr. Venniro again. In two secretly recorded conversations in October last year, he asked Mr. Kennedy to think about the impression he left on people at the bank. He pointed out that Mr. Kennedy was a big black man in Arizona. And he said that Mr. Venniro had been afraid to tell Mr. Kennedy that his application to become a private client had been deleted when Mr. Peters was fired.
A few days later, Mr. Kennedy went back to the branch, and the conversation returned to the question of why the bank refused to grant Mr. Kennedy the status and perks of being a private client.
Mr. Kennedy pulled most of his money out of JPMorgan and filed a grievance with an industry watchdog, and in June the bank sent him a letter trying to put an end to his complaining.