Police officer told to ‘tone down gayness’ may not get $19 million in damages as county argues discrimination is fine

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, a police officer within Missouri's St. Louis County Police Department

A gay police officer was told he would receive $19 million in damages from his employer after he was told to “tone down” his sexuality to get a promotion but the municipality is now appealing, arguing that the discrimination was OK.

Sergeant Keith Wildhaber, an officer within Missouri’s St Louis County Police Department, filed a lawsuit in 2017 after he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant despite 15 years’ service.

According to Wildhaber’s lawsuit, a member of the St Louis County Board of Police Commissioners had told him: “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality. If you ever want to see a white shirt [be promoted], you should tone down your gayness.”

The officer alleged he was passed over 23 times for promotion, and also said that when he filed a discrimination complaint, he was transferred in retaliation.

A jury ruled that the county and the police department had discriminated against Wildhaber, and awarded him $19 million in damages.

But now St Louis County has hired new legal representation, who have pushed aside the verdict and asked for a new trial, on the basis that sexual orientation is not protected by the Missouri Human Rights Act.

According to the St Louis Post-Dispatchthe post-trial motion was filed by the new legal representation on Tuesday (November 27), just one day before the deadline for doing so.

The motion said that county officials had stated their “disdain” for laws that did not protect from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that they were going to take advantage of them anyway.

It read: “The county executive and the county counsellor have openly and publicly stated their disdain for the state of Missouri law on sexual orientation discrimination.

“But they are also fiduciaries, responsible to the taxpayers, and must respect the current state of the law, no matter how much they are disappointed by its failure to protect all groups deserving of protection.”

A statement from the law firm, Lewis Rice, shared by the county executive said that it was “committed to diversity and inclusion”.

The firm added: “St Louis County’s leaders have made clear to us that they share that same commitment. As attorneys, however, we owe a duty to our clients to make legal arguments, consistent with the current law, that best advance and protect our clients’ legal positions, no matter our personal views.”