Merrill Lynch & Co. said more than 300 of 904 claims filed against the biggest U.S. securities firm by women in a sex discrimination suit may have some merit.

"We are prepared to begin settlement discussions or to seek additional information on about one-third" of the claims, John Steffens, head of the brokerage unit, said in a memo today to the firm's 14,800 U.S. brokers.

The class action suit stemmed from a complaint brought by eight female brokers in 1997 saying they were discriminated against when departing brokers' accounts were reassigned. Some said they were penalized for taking maternity leave and overlooked for promotions, curbing their earnings potential.

The suit was settled by a judge in September. About 2,900 women then had the chance to file claims for damages by the end of February. Of those who filed, about 40 percent are current Merrill employees, the company said.

The firm said the claims it plans to pursue are centered on its alleged unfair treatment of female employees on economic issues. "It's still too early to tell what percentage of those claims do have merit," said Bill Halldin, a company spokesman.

The Steffens memo said that in the remainder of the cases, "the information available at this point does not support the allegations." Merrill said it had responded to all the claims today through the plaintiffs' Chicago law firm, Stowell & Friedman.

"We are pleased to see that [Merrill] is beginning to acknowledge that there's a problem that needs to be addressed," said Linda Friedman, a partner in the firm. "We believe that all of the 900 claims . . . have merit."

Merrill Lynch's stock fell $2.31 1/4 a share, to $72.25, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.