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St. Louis County police discrimination case

St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Clayton. Wildhaber, an Army veteran and a St. Louis County cop alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2017, that he was passed over for promotion because he is gay and then retaliated against when he sought legal redress. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

CLAYTON — After an almost $20 million verdict in his favor last month, a St. Louis County police sergeant has agreed to enter mediation with his county employer.

Although it might not seem like it, both sides have reasons to negotiate a settlement.

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber could get to keep a bigger percentage of the award if he settles.

St. Louis County could trim its $19.9 million liability. And for every day that’s not paid, there’s also $4,928 in interest.

That’s how much attorneys for Wildhaber believe the county will owe in interest for each day it delays payment on the verdict a St. Louis County jury awarded him for a discrimination lawsuit.

Wildhaber filed suit in 2017 saying he had been passed over 23 times for promotion because he is gay and had been subjected to shift and precinct changes because he filed a complaint about it.

The jury reached its decision after a five-day trial that ended Oct. 25.

Since then, interest on the verdict has already reached more than $80,000, Wildhaber’s attorneys say in court documents, based on a 9% interest rate that Missouri law sets on verdicts like this.

On Wednesday, both sides of the case told Judge David Lee Vincent III that they were willing to negotiate.

And, Missouri law gives them other incentives to do so.

That’s because Missouri law requires defendants to give half of the amount of punitive damages to the state. The money goes into the Tort Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund.

In this case, the jury deliberated about three hours before awarding 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.

The jury seemed concerned about how the state’s tort law would affect Wildhaber, because they asked the court about the percentage he would have to give to the state about an hour into their deliberations.

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But that law doesn’t apply if the parties reach a settlement during mediation.

Wildhaber’s attorneys have said in post-trial motions that there were “multiple” offers to settle the case through the years before it ever went to trial. For example, the Post-Dispatch reported that Wildhaber offered in April to settle the case for $850,000.

The county hasn’t said whether it will appeal the jury award. The threat of an appeal could motivate Wildhaber to settle.

Still, the jury’s verdict shifts the advantage to the plaintiff, said Peter Joy, law professor at Washington University’s School of Law.

“Prior to trial, the plaintiff in this case was willing to settle, but obviously the plaintiff is in a lot better position now.” The two sides could agree to an amount that’s more than $850,000 but less than $20 million. “That could end up resolving this case,” he said.

Attorneys for the county and for Wildhaber agreed Wednesday that retired Judge Glenn Norton will serve as mediator. Both sides also agreed to split the cost of the mediation process, and can opt out of it at any time, according to the judge’s order.

Wildhaber, meanwhile, is still working midnight shifts in the North County Precinct as a sergeant.

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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