ST. LOUIS • The June settlement of a case in which a white police officer alleged the department promoted a less qualified black candidate over him has pushed the amount of money the St. Louis Police Department has paid out for such allegations in recent years to close to $2 million.
The city paid Maj. Michael Caruso $300,000 — an amount revealed by a public records request filed by the Post-Dispatch.
Caruso sued the department in U.S. District Court last year, claiming he was passed over for a promotion to lieutenant colonel in favor of Ronnie Robinson, a less-qualified African-American major, based on race.
The city counselor’s office and police department declined to comment on this and other recent settlements.
Caruso’s attorney, Lynette Petruska, said the settlement agreement forbids her from commenting on the case.
A law partner of hers, J.C. Pleban, is representing Maj. Rochelle Jones, who is suing the department because she believes she was passed over for the same promotion on the basis of her gender.
The lawsuits raise the question of whether this and other promotional decisions were doomed to end in lawsuits no matter who gets the job, especially at a time when police departments are under pressure to diversify their ranks.
“One or two settlements does not a trend make,” cautioned Jim Bueermann, a former police chief who is now president of the Washington-based Police Foundation. “But police officers are more inclined today to assert their rights when they feel their employers have somehow abused them, and that never happened in the 1970s when I first came into policing.
“You didn’t have to like the decision, but you went along with it. Today, that is no longer the case. Police chiefs and sheriffs are very sensitive to labor rule violations and being sued over labor issues.”
Pleban said he doesn’t spend time contemplating “what ifs” when it comes to the case of the lieutenant colonel position in St. Louis, but insists, “This isn’t a damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” scenario.
“The problem with this case is that the least-qualified candidate in our opinion was promoted,” he said, noting evidence showing tests were readministered several times after Robinson failed them. “And the fix was in from get-go.
“This decision was already made before there even was a promotional process.”
And it’s not the first time, Pleban notes.
This is the second large settlement his law firm has won in recent years by alleging that a candidate was chosen before tests ever began.
St. Louis is hardly alone in its struggle with what’s commonly referred to as reverse discrimination. It’s an issue rooted in historical discrimination against minorities for police promotions.
In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that temporary and “narrowly tailored” quota systems were allowed after an affirmative action plan imposed a promotion standard of “one black for one white” in the Alabama state police ranks. The quota was justified, justices ruled, because of the department’s “long and shameful record of delay and resistance” to black employment opportunities, according to News One magazine.
Some police departments base promotions solely on written exams, advancing only those who score the highest and do not take other factors, such as experience and interview performance, into account, said Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Omaha-Nebraska, who specializes in civil rights issues and policing.
In 2014, a white police officer in Freeport, N.Y., who accused his mayoral boss of passing him up for the chief’s job in favor of a Hispanic candidate, won $1.35 million, according to news reports.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., 10 white police officers split a $725,000 settlement after they accused their chief of lifting a temporary promotion freeze to promote a black officer even though their test scores were superior.
At the time of the promotion, the department’s chief was under pressure from city leaders to make the ranking force more diverse, according to the Tennessee news station WRCB.
Caruso, Jones and Robinson were the only applicants for the lieutenant colonel position in St. Louis.
Caruso has been with the department since 1976. Jones since 1983. And Robinson since 1990.
All three were promoted to the rank of major in 2013 by then-Chief Sam Dotson.
Dotson selected Robinson for the lieutenant colonel promotion in September 2015, putting Robinson among three other men at that rank.
Robinson is now deputy chief in charge of the Community Affairs Division.
Caruso and Jones filed discrimination lawsuits following Robinson’s promotion.
Pleban insists Jones is more qualified for the position than Robinson because she has a master’s degree and more experience and did better on promotional exams than he did.
In Caruso’s suit, he claimed he scored higher than Robinson and Jones on a written competency exam and has degrees that Robinson lacks.
As part of the settlement, the department agreed to pay him $10,000 for lost wages; $120,000 for attorney’s fees; and $170,000 for emotional pain and suffering.
Upon his retirement, his pension benefits will be calculated as if he had worked the final 52 pay periods at a lieutenant colonel’s salary, which is about $95,500 — about $6,000 more than his current salary.
Petruska also represented former Sgt. David Bonenberger. He sued the department in 2012 alleging that he was passed over for a promotion to become an assistant director at the police academy in favor of a less qualified black woman.
In 2013, a federal jury in U.S. District Court awarded Bonenberger $200,000 in actual damages and $420,000 in punitive damages. The punitive damages figure included $100,000 against Lt. Michael Muxo, $300,000 against then-Lt. Col. Reggie Harris and $20,000 against then-Chief Dan Isom. The judge also ordered the police leaders to undergo anti-discrimination training.
Bonenberger sued the department again in 2016 claiming that two days after the award of $172,000 in attorney’s fees, Dotson ordered that an internal affairs investigation into the discrimination be closed.
He also alleged that in May 2014, he was assigned to a position that would put him in regular contact with Muxo.
Bonenberger was then reassigned to a position that reduced his supervisory duties, and then to an assignment that forced him to reschedule vacations, the suit alleged.
He settled for an additional $725,000 in that case in December 2016.
As part of the settlement agreement, Bonenberger, a more than 20-year veteran, agreed to retire. And he, and Petruska, can’t talk about it.
But Pleban noted that federal Judge Catherine Perry’s ruling on the Bonenberger case in April 2014 banned the police department, its command staff and police board from “illegal discrimination based on race on future employment decisions.”
“At the end of the day, people don’t change on their own, it’s big verdicts that open people’s eyes up to say, ‘There needs to be a change,’” Pleban said. “We’ve already shown that an $800,000 verdict doesn’t make a change, so what does it have to be? Eight million? I don’t know.”