After a jury determined in October that the St. Louis County Police Department discriminated against a police officer due to his sexuality, the municipality is fighting back.
The case began when Sargeant Keith Wildhaber filed a lawsuit against the county police department in 2017, claiming he was denied a promotion to lieutenant after serving on the force since 1994. Despite Wildhaber scoring well on tests to obtain the promotion, he was told he was “too gay” for his career advancement and should “tone it down.”
Wildhaber won $20 million from the October court ruling, but now the county has contracted new attorneys with the Lewis-Rice law firm for an appeal, who have asked for a new trial to be ordered and the original verdict set aside. The county is alleging that Wildhaber’s lawsuit was brought under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which doesn’t protect people based on sexual orientation. Therefore, anti-gay discrimination should be allowed.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the first to report, the opening pages of the 63-page motion filed by the county’s new legal team acknowledges that County Executive Sam Page and County Counselor Beth Orwick “have openly and publicly stated their disdain for the state of Missouri law on sexual orientation discrimination.”
However, Lewis-Rice says there’s a catch. “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,” attorneys claim.
In other words, the law firm is using the state law to challenge the verdict, even if county officials personally disagree with the law.
Page has criticized the county legal staff for arguing that Wildhaber’s case should be dismissed, saying he’s “horrified and surprised that argument was used.” He added, “I don’t want to see it used again. I have a general rule that I don’t manage departments, but this is going to be an exception.”
Orwick says she “specifically instructed” the attorneys working on the case not to make that argument and was mortified when they did so anyway.
“I co-sponsored the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act bill in 2006 when I was in the state Legislature,” she said in a Tuesday statement. “Sadly, it did not pass then and is still not law today. I would not have authorized an appeal of the crippling monetary award without also pursuing a settlement or without making major changes to the leadership of the department and the training of its officers.”
A spokesman for Page says mediation is still planned with the hope of reaching a settlement, according to the Washington Post.