A jury recently awarded nearly $20 million to a police officer in Missouri who alleged that his department discriminated against him over his sexual orientation and said he was told to “tone down your gayness.”
Despite receiving excellent written reviews since joining the St. Louis County police in 1997, Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber tried repeatedly to become a lieutenant but was passed over for promotion 23 times.
Wildhaber says the force was aware of his sexuality and even asked him to act as a liaison with the LGBTQ community in 2014.
While performing a routine security check at a local restaurant in 2014, the owner, a former member of the department’s civilian police board, offered him some surprising career advice, according to a 2017 lawsuit.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” restaurant owner John Saracino allegedly told Wildhaber, according to the lawsuit. “If you ever want to see a white shirt (i.e., get a promotion), you should tone down your gayness.”
During his court case last week, Wildhaber said he’d never been told anything like this before and was shocked to be having such a conversation. Saracino has denied the conversation took place.
A month after Wildhaber filed a complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, he was reassigned from his afternoon shift to a midnight shift in a precinct that was about 27 miles from where he lived, according to the lawsuit.
Wildhaber filed another discrimination charge after his reassignment, this time alleging unlawful retaliation.
The lawsuit alleged that Wildhaber was passed up for numerous other promotions because “he does not conform to the County’s gender-based norms, expectations, and/or preferences.”
A jury sided with Wildhaber on Friday, awarding him nearly $19.9 million — a judgment intended to “send a message,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in a statement Sunday.
— County Executive Sam Page (@DrSamPage) October 27, 2019
Attorneys for Wildhaber called the verdict “historic,” according to a Monday news release.
“This has been a long and difficult road for Keith,” the attorneys said. “His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere.”