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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County To Pay $10.25 Million To Settle Wildhaber's Gay Discrimination Suit

St. Louis County Police car
Paul Sableman | Flickr

Updated at 1:15 p.m. Feb. 12 with comments from Wildhaber's attorneys

St. Louis County has agreed to pay a police officer $10.25 million to settle a workplace discrimination verdict.

A jury in October awarded Lt. Keith Wildhaber, who is gay, nearly $20 million after agreeing that he had been passed over for promotions because of his sexual orientation. The two sides then went into mediation to try to reach a settlement.

“This lawsuit acknowledged what Lt. Wildhaber survived in the police department, and lets us move forward as a county,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in announcing the settlement. “I think it’s important to recognize that this sends a message to everyone in county government and to all of our employers in the St. Louis region that discrimination of any type, including based on sexual orientation, will not be tolerated.”

The county announced the settlement a few hours after Police Chief Jon Belmar said he is retiring April 30. Page said Belmar’s retirement was not part of the settlement.

Some members of the county’s political leadership had held Belmar responsible for the Wildhaber lawsuit.

Under the settlement terms, the county must pay nearly $7 million — $4.4 million to Wildhaber and another $2.6 million to his attorneys — by April 10. The remaining $3.25 million must be paid by Jan. 31, 2021. That amount will also be shared by Wildhaber and his attorneys.

Page said the county has submitted claims to its insurance companies, but will sell bonds in order to be able to meet the April deadline and “limit the present-day impact to our budget and maintain our normal operations of county government.” He said none of the funds to cover the cost of the lawsuit will come from Proposition P tax money.

“Proposition P is a voter-approved public safety sales tax that is for public safety,” Page said.

There are no mandated policy changes as part of the settlement, but Page said the county is already working quickly to do a “deep review” of the department.

The police board, he said, is already looking for consultants who can help draft policy changes. The department also recently created a new Diversity and Inclusion unit, headed by Wildhaber.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Wildhaber's attorneys Sam Moore and Russ Riggan said they were pleased with the settlement with the county. The statement added that “Keith’s bravery and courage should be an inspiration for employees everywhere.”

"This settlement marks the end of a long and difficult road for our client," the statement said. "Keith is of the highest character, and this litigation journey began when Keith became tired of enduring unlawful treatment and chose to stand up for what he thought was right. In doing so, he endured further and even more intense discrimination and retaliation."

Riggan said Wildhaber will remain at the St. Louis County Police Department as the head of the agency's diversity and inclusion unit.

Wildhaber said in the suit that after he complained about workplace discrimination, he was transferred to a less desirable position within the department. The jury found that he had faced both discrimination and retaliation.

It was always unlikely that the county was going to be liable for nearly $20 million. Due to state laws that cap the amount of damages juries can award, legal experts had said that the county would have at most owed $12.5 million.

Questions remain about how much of the settlement the county’s insurance will cover. The county can spend at most $2.5 million from its self-insurance fund. Under the best-case scenario, another county insurance policy could be used to help cover the rest of the bill.

“I think we all recognize that any insurance carrier will always hesitate when it’s time to pay, and the bigger the number, the more they will hesitate and review,” Page said of the insurance claims. “Our case is very solid, our agreements are strong, and this is a normal process that we go through.”

The county council does not have to approve the settlement, but it must agree to sell the bonds. Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said he would reserve judgment on Page’s call to use bonds until he saw the legislation.

“Any way we look at it, it’s going to be expensive,” he said.

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