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.