A veteran US police sergeant was awarded nearly USD $20 million in a discrimination lawsuit last Friday after he was told that if he wanted to be promoted would have to “tone down the gayness”.
Sgt Keith Wildhaber from St Louis County, Missouri, filed a lawsuit against the department in 2017 after allegedly being passed over for promotion 23 times and later transferred when he complained, according to the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
Despite having more than fifteen years of experience on the force, when he applied for a promotion in 2014, Wildhaber was told that his sexual orientation was preventing him from becoming a lieutenant.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” a former member of the St Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, John Saracino, allegedly told Wildhaber in February 2014.
“If you ever want to see a white shirt [get promoted], you should tone down your gayness.”
Saracino has denied saying this.
Jurors in St Louis County Court also heard that his police captain Guy Means privately called Wildhaber “fruity”.
During the week-long trial, Wildhaber presented testimony about his promotional pass overs and his transfer to the Jennings precinct from the Affton precinct after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint, as well as accounts by other employees in the department.
“I was sickened by it,” Wildhaber told the court last week.
“I think I said: ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear.”
A witness in the trial, Donna Woodland—who is the widow of a former county police officer and girlfriend of a current officer—supported Wildhaber’s complaint and presented crucial evidence against Means.
Woodland testified that she had heard Means say Wildhaber was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt”.
Woodland also recalled Means saying: “You know about him, right? He’s fruity.”
Means allegedly made his homophobic comments about Wildhaber to Woodland at an event in 2015. However, Means testified on Thursday that he did not recall attending the event Woodland referred to and that he did not know Woodland.
He also said he would not be able to pick her out of the jury box if she was sitting there.
However, on Friday Woodland produced a photo booth array with three pictures of her and Means together at the event, including one frame that shows Means giving Woodland a bear hug.
Woodland also produced a receipt showing she paid $147 for a framed picture for Means which she saw hanging in his office. Woodland, at the time, considered means a close friend.
Following the compelling evidence, the jury deliberated for only three hours before awarding Wildhaber $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination allegation. The jury also added $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the retaliation allegations – totaling to $19,899,999 (AUD $29,055,260.27).
One of the jury foreman overseeing the case, who was identified only as juror No. 4, told reporters that the actions of the St Louis County Police Department were “indefensible”.
“We wanted to send a message. If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Wildhaber’s attorney Russ Riggan told the jury during his closing argument that their decision would have “far-reaching” implications in the fight against workplace discrimination.
“The county should be ashamed,” said Riggan.
“Our community deserves better.”