Jury Awards Cop Nearly $20 Million After He Was Told “Tone Down The Gayness If You Want Promotion”

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber (image via Wildhaber)

I reported earlier this week on the discrimination lawsuit brought by St. Louis County police officer Sgt. Keith Wildhaber who says he was told to “tone down the gayness” if he ever wanted to be promoted to lieutenant.

At the end of a weeklong trial, the jury deliberated only three hours before awarding the 22-year-veteran nearly $20 million, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Here’s the breakdown of the damages per the jury:

• $1.9 million in actual damages
• $10 million in punitive damages
• $999,000 for actual damages for retaliation allegations
• $7 million in punitive damages for retaliation allegations

The jury foreman told reporters, “We wanted to send a message. If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price…You can’t defend the indefensible.”

Several jurors shared with the press that an array of photos presented in court Friday became key evidence in coming to their decision.

Earlier in the week, Donna Woodland, a widow of a former county police officer, testified that Capt. Guy Means called Wildhaber “fruity” while attending a police charity event in 2015.

According to Woodland, Means added that Wildhaber would never be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness and had to tone it down.”

Means later testified he didn’t remember attending the event and didn’t know Woodland saying he wouldn’t be able “to pick her out of the jury box if she was sitting there.”

On Friday, Woodland returned with an array of photo booth pics from the event showing Means posing with her, including one instance where he was giving her a big hug.

Hardly the kind of pose you do with someone you “don’t know.”

In the opening of the trial, Wildhaber told the jury he was “sickened” when a former member of the St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners, John Saracino, told him in 2014 to “tone down the gayness” if he wanted a promotion.

Wildhaber’s lawsuit alleged he had been passed over for promotion 23 times despite high scores on promotions tests.

On the opening day of the lawsuit, lawyers representing Wildhaber characterized Chief Jon Belmar as “having a penchant for promoting masculine men that dominates all promotional decisions and said that he will retaliate against anyone who questions them, as Wildhaber did by filing his lawsuit.”

After filing his lawsuit, Wildhaber said he faced retaliation by being transferred to the Jennings precinct which nearly tripled his daily commute to work. And he was moved from afternoon shifts and put on midnights.

Wildhaber told the court, “It’s what’s known as a ‘geography lesson’ in the department.”

Chief Belmar later testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit was a factor in denying the sergeant any promotions, which Wildhaber’s lawyers called “the best sound bite” for the case.

According to the Post-Dispatch, a spokesperson for county officials said they “will be exploring all of our legal options this weekend and we are going to do what’s best for the county.”

I fully expect the jury’s decision to be appealed and the amount of the damages to be reduced. But, a win is a win.

As I previously reported, Missouri has no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace.

(source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Police Veteran Told ‘Tone Down’ The Gayness If He Wanted Promotion

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber (image via Wildhaber)

In the spring of 2014, St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber says he was told he would need to “tone down his gayness” if he hoped to be promoted to lieutenant.

The comment, according to Wildhaber, came from a former member of the St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners, John Saracino, a short time after Chief Jon Belmar took over the department.

“I was sickened by it,” said Wildhaber on the first day of his employment discrimination lawsuit against the department, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” Wildhaber told the jury. “We had never spoken of my sexuality before, and I thought he was just trying to be helpful to me and looking out for my best interest in the promotional process.”

Saracino later denied making the comment.

Wildhaber filed the lawsuit in 2017 after being passed over for promotion 23 times.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time Wildhaber ranked third among 26 people who took a promotions test in February 2014. In February 2015, he again placed third in a second round of tests.

On the opening day of the lawsuit, lawyers representing Wildhaber characterized Chief Belmar as “having a penchant for promoting masculine men that dominates all promotional decisions and said that he will retaliate against anyone who questions them, as Wildhaber did by filing his lawsuit.”

“The police department under Chief Belmar is big on high-testosterone, type A masculine personalities, and my method of policing doesn’t conform with that,” testified Wildhaber, who contends he would have been promoted if he weren’t openly gay. “This chief is very heavy on promoting the SWAT, masculine type of guys, and I wasn’t doing that.”

Wildhaber’s attorneys told the jury that, after filing his lawsuit, Wildhaber was transferred to the Jennings precinct which nearly tripled his daily commute to work. And he was moved from afternoon shifts and put on midnights.

Wildhaber told the court, “It’s what’s known as a ‘geography lesson’ in the department.”

Lawyers for the department told the jury the police chief had reasons not to promote the 22-year-veteran, who is still with the department.

The department’s attorney’s pointed to a three-day suspension in 2011 for failing to file 23 out of 6,000 police reports during his tenure as a fraud detective.

The lawyer’s also said Wildhaber had been the subject of an FBI investigation and hadn’t told Belmar. They accused him of tipping off a suspect the FBI was investigating.

But Wildhaber denied the allegations saying, “I didn’t do that,” adding that he informed his supervisor after being questioned by the FBI.

Attorneys for Wildhaber say there have been several officers with larger disciplinary issues in their file than Wildhaber who have been promoted to lieutenant.

The trial will continue on Wednesday.

Missouri has no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace.

A bill to add sexual orientation to the state’s non-discrimination laws was passed by the state Senate on May 17, 2013, but the state House of Representatives adjourned that session without taking up the bill for consideration.

(source: Post-Dispatch)