St. Louis County, Mo., police officer Sgt. Keith Wildhaber on Friday won a discrimination lawsuit against his department for nearly $20 million after claiming the department discriminated against him based on his sexuality and retaliated against him when he filed a complaint.
In one instance in 2014, Wildhaber recounted in the suit, county official John Saracino told him to “tone down” his gayness if he wanted to be promoted to lieutenant and told him the command staff had a problem with his sexuality. The suit said Wildhaber was passed over for 23 promotions over 5 1/2 years because he is gay. Wildhaber had been at the department since 1994.
The jury delivered its verdict Friday. Wildhaber received $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination claim. He also received $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the retaliation claim.
Wildhaber had filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2016. As a result, he was transferred to another precinct against his wishes. He ultimately filed a total of five discrimination and retaliation complaints.
Police Chief John Belmar said in his testimony that the lawsuit was one of the reasons Wildhaber was not promoted. However, he also said he had not punished Wildhaber or denied him a promotion for being gay.
Another testimony by Donna Woodland — a widow of a former county police officer and girlfriend of a current officer — said that Capt. Guy Means had called Wildhaber “fruity” and said he would never be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness” at a 2015 event.
Means testified that he had never met Wildhaber and didn’t recall attending the event, but Woodland provided photographs of herself with Means in the event’s photo booth.
After the verdict, the St. Louis County Police Union issued a statement.
“The St. Louis County Police Association has a long history of fighting for equality for all of our members,” it said. “While we are extremely embarrassed of the alleged actions of some of our Department’s senior commanders, we look forward to the healing process that can begin to take place now that this has been heard in open court.”
County Executive Sam Page also said in a statement that there will be changes made to the police leadership board, starting with new appointments.
— County Executive Sam Page (@DrSamPage) October 27, 2019
Roland Corvington resigned as the chairman of the police board Monday. Another member said Page told her she was being replaced, according to NPR. Page has not made any statements regarding how many — or which — people he wants to replace and has not indicated whether he wants the board to fire Belmar, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Wildhaber was not the only person to claim the department had a homophobic culture. Mary Beth Ruby, an executive assistant to Deputy Chief Kenneth Gregory, said she put down her fiancée’s name as an emergency contact on a form, which revealed she was gay. She said she overheard him telling another commander that homosexuality was an “abomination.” She said after she filled out the form, she was then given a heavier workload, was stripped of her supervisory role and was harassed, humiliated and embarrassed “almost daily.”
The jury took three hours to deliberate on Wildhaber’s case. After the trial ended, the jury foreman, identified as juror No. 4, told reporters the jurors wanted their decision to send a message against discrimination.
“We wanted to send a message,” he said. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price … you can’t defend the indefensible.”