Keith Wildhaber, an openly gay police officer of Missouri’s St Louis County Police Department, filed a lawsuit back in 2017 after claims he was passed over for promotion due to his sexuality.
Wildhaber, who has 15 years of service within the police force, claimed he had been passed for promotion over 23 times. According to his lawsuit, a member of the St Louis County Board of Police Commissioners had told Wildhaber: “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality. If you ever want to see a white shirt [receive a promotion], you should tone down your gayness.”
Wildhaber also claimed that when he filed a discrimination complaint for the prejudice he had received, he was transferred in retaliation. Employment law in Missouri states that an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint of disrimination within the workplace.
The lawsuit by Wildhaber had offered to settle the case with the department – and not be brought to trial – if he received $850,000 and a promotion to lieutenant. The county, however, insisted that it go to trial anyway.
The case was brought to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where a jury sided with Wildhaber after testimonies by senior police officials was contradicted by evidence presented. The jury ruled back in October of 2019 that Keith Wildhaber had been discriminated against by the department and was awarded $20 million in damages.
However, the St Louis County rejected the verdict and asked for another trial, claiming that discrimation was legal on the basis that sexual orientation was not protected under the Missouri Human Rights Act. Missouri currently does not have any laws that address discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity.
The trial ended with Wildhaber receiving a $10.25 million settlement, as well as a promotion to lieutenant and the head of a new diversity unit. The gay police officer now turned lieutenant plans to retire later this year.
Soon after the trial, the jury foreman said that both the settlement and the verdict would “send a message”.
Whether by coincidence or not, St Louis County police chief Jon Belmar announced he would be stepping down on the same day that the settlement was reached. He offered no reasons as to why.
County executive Sam Page gave his thoughts on the case, saying: “This lawsuit acknowledges what Lieutenant Wildhaber survived in the police department and lets us move forward as a county.
“I think it’s important to recognise that this sends a message to everyone in county government and to all of our employers in the St Louis region, that discrimination will not be tolerated.
“This is an opportunity for our department to move forward and to continue to make the progress that has been made and to stay focused on my… goals for our police department, which is first to keep us safe and second to respect all people.”
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