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Attorneys for St. Louis County cop who won discrimination suit get $700,000 in fees

Attorneys for St. Louis County cop who won discrimination suit get $700,000 in fees

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CLAYTON — A St. Louis County judge on Friday awarded $700,000 in fees to the attorneys of a police sergeant who won a lawsuit claiming county police had discriminated against him.

Judge David Vincent III said the attorneys’ frustration regarding county counselor delays was not lost on him.

“I saw what they were going through,” Vincent said Friday. “You really struggled and were frustrated with the other side. There were many times you showed up with that look on your faces.”

A jury awarded Sgt. Keith Wildhaber nearly $20 million after a five-day trial in October, in which Wildhaber argued that Chief Jon Belmar and his administration refused to promote him because he is gay.

Wildhaber’s attorneys, Russ Riggan and Sam Moore, asked the judge to double their fees, given how much time they put into the case since filing it in 2017.

During a hearing Friday, Riggan and Moore argued that they appeared before Vincent repeatedly during the discovery process to report that then-County Counselor Carl Becker had failed to produce documents and information they were seeking. They said there were also “multiple” attempts at setting trial dates that fell through.

“We’ve turned down a lot of other work because of the time we have put into this case,” Riggan said.

Belmar appointed Becker as his human resources director earlier this year. County counselors Mike Hughes and Frank Smith represented the county during the five-day October trial.

Since the verdict, the County Council approved $75,000 to hire the Lewis Rice law firm to handle its response to the verdict, which includes hourly rates ranging from $182 to $582 for the five attorneys working on the case.

Three of the most expensive attorneys, Neal Perryman, Sarah Mullen and Michael Jente, argued during the hearing Friday. Two county counselors, Beth Orwick and Frank Smith, also attended.

Mullen told Vincent that it should be rare for a trial judge to double the amount of attorney’s fees and involve an “exceptional case.” The firm also filed a subpoena for the fee arrangement Wildhaber’s attorneys have with him, arguing that they need to know how much Wildhaber’s attorneys will be making off of the verdict in order to argue against their request for additional fees.

Vincent granted their motion for the fee arrangement, but put it under a protective order.

The jury awarded Wildhaber $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination allegation. Jurors added $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for Wildhaber’s allegations that St. Louis County police commanders had retaliated by transferring him when he filed a complaint.

If the jury’s verdict were to stand, Wildhaber would have to split $17 million in punitive damages with the state because of a state law on punitive damages.

But Vincent ordered the two sides to enter into mediation during a hearing last week. Should they reach a settlement, Wildhaber will not have to give a portion of the settlement to the state. That means the county could pay out less, and Wildhaber could keep a larger percentage of the verdict.

On Friday, Vincent also ruled on a motion Wildhaber’s attorneys filed, which said the county should be paying 9% in interest on the verdict, or about $4,900 a day. Perryman and Mullen argued that the law sets the rate at 6.5% and that it should take effect the day the judge sets it, not retroactively to the date of the verdict.

Vincent agreed, and set the rate at 6.5% to take effect Friday.

According to the calculations included in Wildhaber’s attorney’s motion, the decision will save the county about $143,000.

Read the coverage of the Wildhaber suit, trial and decisions after the verdict

County leaders call the Wildhaber suit, trial and verdict 'wake-up call.'

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