St. Louis police sergeant told to 'tone down your gayness' awarded $20 million by jury

St. Louis County Sgt. Keith Wildhaber filed the lawsuit in 2017.

October 30, 2019, 3:59 PM

A police sergeant was awarded nearly $20 million by a Missouri jury in a sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit he filed after allegedly being told to "tone down your gayness" by a police commission board member.

The jury sided with Sgt. Keith Wildhaber in the suit he filed against St. Louis County, claiming he was passed over for promotions, and discriminated against and retaliated against because of his sexual orientation.

Wildhaber's attorneys called the jury verdict "historic."

PHOTO: St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county in Clayton, Mo., Oct. 24, 2019.
St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county in Clayton, Mo., Oct. 24, 2019.
Cristina M. Fletes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

"His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere," Wildhaber's lawyers, Russ Riggan and Sam Moore, said in a joint statement to ABC News. "Justice was served in this trial, and no client could be more deserving than Keith. The jury acted as the conscience of the community and spoke loud and clear in its verdict."

The St. Louis County Circuit Court jury, which reached its verdict on Friday following a week-long trial, awarded Wildhaber a $19.9 million judgment, including $17 million in punitive damages.

Wildhaber claimed in his suit that while conducting a security check on a restaurant owned by John Saracino, a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, he was allegedly told by Saracino that the police command staff "has a problem with your sexuality." Wildhaber claims Saracino went on to offer him advice on how to achieve his goal.

Wildhaber claimed that Saracino allegedly told him that if he wanted to get promoted, "you should tone down your gayness," the lawsuit stated.

Saracino denied ever saying such a thing to Wildhaber.

Wildhaber claimed he was passed over multiple times for promotion despite having "a clean disciplinary history, excellent performance reviews, and a strong resume for being promoted to Lieutenant," according to the suit.

The suit alleged that Wildhaber's superiors, namely St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, refused to promote him "because he does not conform to the County's gender-based norms, expectations, and/or preferences."

PHOTO: SSt. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, center, flanked by his attorneys Sam Moore, left, and Russell Riggan leave the St. Louis County justice center, Oct. 22, 2019, in Clayton, Mo.
St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, center, flanked by his attorneys Sam Moore, left, and Russell Riggan, right, leave the St. Louis County justice center during lunch break on the first day of Wildhaber's discrimination case against the county, Oct. 22, 2019, in Clayton, Mo.
Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

Wildhaber complained to management numerous times, and in April 2016 he filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Missouri Commission on Human Rights alleging "unlawful employment discrimination due to the County's failure to promote him based on his sex/gender."

A month later, Wildhaber claims his superiors retaliated by reassigning him from a day shift to a midnight shift and transferring him to a precinct 27 miles from his home.

He filed a total of five complaints with the EEOC and Commission on Human Rights, alleging discrimination and unlawful retaliation.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights eventually issued Wildhaber a notice granting him the right to sue the county.

Following the verdict, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page recommended that members of the Board of Police Commissioners and Belmar be replaced, saying, "The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top."

"Our police department must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity," Page said in a statement he posted on Twitter. "Employment decisions in the department must be made on merit and who is best for the job."

On Monday, Page said in a letter addressed to county employees that Board Chairman Robert Corvington had resigned. However, he indicated Belmar will not be going anywhere, saying in the same letter, "Other changes will come by taking a fresh look at how the Police Department makes decisions. Over the coming weeks, Chief Belmar will lead the department through these changes."

Belmar has not commented on the jury verdict or on calls for him to be replaced, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police told ABC News on Tuesday.

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