First it was a sex discrimination case and then a reference that troubled former Merrill Lynch lawyer Elizabeth Weston who said the reference was the death knell for getting into a prestigious business school.

A former Merrill Lynch lawyer who last July settled a sex discrimination case with the U.S. bank, said on Tuesday a reference it gave her was the “death knell” for her chances of getting into a prestigious U.S. business school.

Elizabeth Weston, who left Merrill in March 2004, alleges she was victimised in a reference the bank provided for her application to study for an MBA degree at Columbia Business School in New York.

Weston was giving evidence on the second day of a hearing at a central London employment tribunal.

Merrill’s reference for the Columbia application described her as “average”.

Weston, in a witness statement, said her performance was not average and that previous appraisals at the bank had described her work as “first rate” and “excellent”.

Nicholas Hall, general counsel at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, who gave the reference, was required to respond to a series of questions from Columbia, including Weston’s performance versus her peers.

Weston said: “Nicholas would have known that by describing my performance as average that would be the death knell of any chance that I would have had to be offered a place in any of the prestigious business schools to which I was applying”.

The five schools were Columbia business school, Harvard, Wharton, Yale and Stanford.

But Merrill Lynch showed in evidence that her score in an aptitude test she took last September as part of entry requirements for the top U.S. business schools was below the average for Yale, Columbia and Harvard.

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