A St. Louis, Missouri police sergeant has won nearly $20 million after filing a lawsuit alleging he was told by a police commission board member to “tone down your gayness” and passed over for promotions due to his sexuality.
A jury awarded Sgt. Keith Wildhaber a total of $19.9 million in damages, including $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages for discrimination, and $999,000 actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for retaliation, The St. Louis Times Dispatch reported.
Wildhaber claimed a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, John Saracino, told the police sergeant in 2014 that management had “a problem with your sexuality” and that if he wanted to get promoted, he “should tone down your gayness.” Saracino denied making the comments.
Wildhaber also claimed in his lawsuit that others were promoted ahead of him even though he had “a clean disciplinary history, excellent performance reviews, and a strong resume for being promoted to Lieutenant,” his lawsuit, reviewed by ABC News, alleged. The New York Times reported that Wildhaber’s resume boasted 15 years of experience and that he was among the top three out of 26 candidates for a promotion, yet still did not get promoted. In fact, he was passed over for a promotion 23 times in five-and-a-half years.
The lawsuit claimed his superiors would not promote him “because he does not conform to the County’s gender-based norms, expectations, and/or preferences.” More from ABC:
Wildhaber complained to management numerous times, and in April 2016 he filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Missouri Commission on Human Rights alleging “unlawful employment discrimination due to the County’s failure to promote him based on his sex/gender.”
A month later, Wildhaber claims his superiors retaliated by reassigning him from a day shift to a midnight shift and transferring him to a precinct 27 miles from his home.
He filed a total of five complaints with the EEOC and Commission on Human Rights, alleging discrimination and unlawful retaliation.
The Missouri Commission on Human Rights granted Wildhaber permission to sue the city over his alleged treatment.
The Dispatch reported that Police Chief Jon Belmar testified at the week-long trial that Wildhaber was passed over for promotion due to job errors, such as tipping of the subject of an FBI investigation.
The jury deliberated for more than three hours before siding with Wildhaber. One juror told the Dispatch that photos suggesting Capt. Guy Means was untruthful helped seal the deal. Donna Woodland, the widow of a former police officer, testified that Means told her Wildhaber wouldn’t be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a [promotion].” Woodland also said Means called Wildhaber “fruity” at an event. Means testified he didn’t remember attending the event and didn’t even know Woodland well enough to pick her out of a lineup. Woodland returned to counter his testimony with photos showing Means smiling and hugging her – including one photo where he’s hugging her from behind with a big grin on his face – at the event in question. Woodland also provided a receipt for a $147 framed picture that she bought for Means, whom she said was a friend. Woodland said Means hung the picture in his office.
Following the verdict, County Executive Sam Page released a statement saying it was time for leadership changes in the police department.
“Our police department must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity,” wrote Page. “Employment decisions in the department must be made on merit and who is best for the job.”
Page went on to suggest that the “time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top.”
In a statement to ABC News following the jury verdict, Wildhaber’s attorneys, Russ Riggan and Sam Moore, said the police sergeant was “an inspiration” for employees around the world.
“His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere,” the attorneys said. “Justice was served in this trial, and no client could be more deserving than Keith. The jury acted as the conscience of the community and spoke loud and clear in its verdict.”