UBS Senior Banker Fired for Breach Sues for Unfair Dismissal

(Bloomberg) -- A former UBS Group AG veteran who was dismissed following a compliance-breach investigation is suing the bank in London, saying his departure was “highly unfair.”

Michel Lee, a senior banker in Hong Kong who worked on many of China’s largest corporate fundraisings, was dismissed after an internal probe into the disclosure of confidential information to a client in 2018. At an employment tribunal in London, he also said he suffered after whistleblowing and from sexual discrimination. UBS is fighting the employment claim on jurisdiction grounds, according to court filings.

Lee specialized in offering equity derivative products before he was fired in 2018 in a decision taken by the president of the investment bank in London. He’d worked for 25 years at UBS, including 11 in Hong Kong. The claim is at an early stage and the full details of the complaint aren’t available, but Lee’s filing said that UBS determined that his alleged misconduct was a breach of Hong Kong employment standards.

Throughout his tenure, Lee was always formally an employee of UBS’s London branch, he said in his filing at the start of a preliminary hearing. The banker was paid above the salary cap for a managing director in Hong Kong and compensated as if he was working in London. He also faced U.K. disciplinary proceedings rather than those in Asia, he said.

The bank said that it would continue to defend against the accusations.

“We wouldn’t comment on ongoing proceedings other than to say we deny the allegations made in the claim,” UBS said.

In British employment cases, an award is capped at just above 80,000 pounds ($104,000) unless a worker can show discrimination or that they were fired for blowing the whistle on improper actions.

During his cross-examination Monday, Lee apologized for being “emotional.” He frequently appeared frustrated, raising his voice only to be interrupted by the judge.

Lee’s group at UBS worked on financing many of the largest Chinese conglomerates as they stepped up the pace of acquisitions to a record. UBS was one of four banks to hold collateral for $3 billion of loans to the heavily indebted HNA Group Co. after helping fund the acquisition of Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc.

Lee was designated a “material risk taker” by the London branch for the purposes of U.K. Prudential Regulatory Authority rules, according to the filing. The Hong Kong office wasn’t legally allowed to run an equity derivatives position, he said.

“Hong Kong regulators would never allow losses to be taken in Hong Kong,” he said.

UBS operated much of its business through its London branch, Lee’s lawyer Jonathan Cohen said. That U.K. unit is the business that enters into contracts with customers and holds the collateral of any financing, he said.

“It is the hub of the UBS investment bank, from which spokes lead out to staff prospecting business elsewhere in the world,” Cohen said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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