A jury on Friday recommended awarding Keith Wildhaber, a sergeant for the St. Louis County police department, nearly $20 million in damages in an employment discrimination case after finding that the department discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation.
Wildhaber filed the lawsuit in 2017 alleging that he had been passed up for promotions over 20 times because he is gay and therefore “does not conform to the County’s gender-based norms, expectations, and/or preferences.” Wildhaber was among the top candidates for the job of lieutenant after exhibiting exceptional performance of his duties and receiving the support from his immediate superiors, but John Saracino, a then-member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, told him in 2014 that he should “tone down [his] gayness” if he wanted to get a promotion.
Despite bringing complaints to management on multiple occasions, no action was taken and the matter was not investigated. This led Wildhaber to bring a charge to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2016. Soon after, the department transferred Wildhaber to a station much farther from his home and assigned him to the midnight shift. He then filed further charges for unlawful retaliation and ultimately brought suit against the department.
Witnesses at the trial last week reported multiple anti-gay statements by police officials, including that Wildhaber was “fruity” and “way too out there with his gayness.” The jury awarded actual and punitive damages for both the discrimination and the retaliation totaling $19,970,000.