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St. Louis County Enters Mediation With Officer Over $20 Million Discrimination Payout

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar listens to U.S. Attorney General  Sessions' remarks. (03/31/17)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County is going into mediation with an officer who won a discrimination lawsuit.

St. Louis County is headed to mediation with a police officer who was awarded a huge jury verdict in a discrimination case.

A jury found that Sgt. Keith Wildhaber was denied promotions for being gay — and was retaliated against when he lodged formal complaints. He was awarded nearly $20 million.

Earlier this week, St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Vincent III agreed to send the county and Wildhaber into post-trial mediation. He tapped retired Judge Glenn Norton to serve as the mediator.

Peter Joy, a Washington University School of Law professor, said mediation could be beneficial for both the county and Wildhaber. For one thing, the process could result in the county paying out less money. It could pay about $12.5 million between a self-insurance fund and an insurance policy.

Wildhaber also may have incentive to settle. Joy pointed to a state statute that requires half of punitive damages go to a victims fund. He said that pot of money is for people who won cases but couldn't be fully compensated, typically because there wasn't sufficient insurance.

Joy noted that the statute requiring that punitive damages go to the victims fund does not apply if a settlement occurs before the jury verdict becomes final. 

“By ordering mediation and the parties agreeing to go to mediation, they'll both go in there and have a chance to see if they could work out a settlement in the matter, that for the county is less than the amount it's been ordered to pay by the jury,” Joy said. “And for the plaintiff, he may be walking away with an amount that would be better than if they split the punitive damages for the state of Missouri.”

Of the award, $17 million was for punitive damages.

There could be other reasons for Wildhaber to go through mediation, Joy said. That could include rectifying Wildhaber’s career trajectory since he is still a member of the county police.

“They could also address the issue about what kind of promotion he might end up getting or where he might be stationed,” he said.

St. Louis County counselor Beth Orwick declined to comment, citing the fact that the Wildhaber case is pending litigation. An attorney for Wildhaber could not be reached for comment.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.