Sergeant Wins $620K Race Discrimination Claim

Sergeant David Bonenberger, who is white, was a long-time employee of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. In September 2010, the Department posted a job opening for Assistant Academy Director of the city’s police academy. Upon learning of the opening, Bonenberger contacted a lieutenant “to get a feel for” whether he might be eligible for the position, despite not meeting the minimum qualifications of three years of supervisory experience and two years of teaching experience. The lieutenant told Bonenberger “not to bother applying because the job was going to a black female. It was out of his hands and Colonel Harris would make the decision.” The lieutenant later repeated the statement to the outgoing Assistant Academy Director.

Bonenberger applied for the job anyway, “hoping that maybe something would fall through with the person they had picked out for it.” Despite Bonenberger’s interest and the recommendation of the outgoing Assistant Academy Director, he did not get the job, which was instead awarded to a black female sergeant. The other sergeant had less supervising and teaching experience than Bonenberger, he had greater number of certifications, and his performance evaluations exceeded hers.

Bonenberger sued, claiming he was the victim of race discrimination. A jury found in Bonenberger’s favor, awarding him $620,000, and the trial order ordered the City to cease discriminatory practices. The City appealed to the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Bonenberger did not prove that he was the victim of the requisite “adverse employment action” necessary to support a discrimination claim.

A federal court disagreed with the City, and upheld the jury’s verdict. The Court held that “an adverse employment action is a tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage. Denial of a sought-after transfer may constitute an adverse employment action if the transfer would result in a change in pay, rank, or material working conditions. Although the City correctly asserts Bonenberger would not have experienced a change in pay or rank if he had been selected for the Assistant Academy Director position, we must also determine whether the position offered materially different working conditions.

“Bonenberger introduced evidence the Assistant Academy Director position was a high-profile job; involved significant supervisory duties; offered more contact with command rank officers; and provided regular daytime hours and holidays off. Historically sergeants who held the position of Assistant Academy Director were significantly more likely to be promoted to Lieutenant.

“We have held changes in supervisory duties, prestige, and promotion potential, if significant, can produce materially different working conditions. Based on these previous interpretations, we conclude the Assistant Academy Director position’s supervisory duties, regular schedule and hours, greater prestige, and potential increased opportunity for promotion, in combination, offered a material change in working conditions for Bonenberger. These materially different working conditions provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion Bonenberger suffered an adverse employment action. Because there were probative facts to support the verdict, the trial court did not err by denying the City’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Bonenberger’s discrimination claims.”

Bonenberger v. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 810 F.3d 1103 (8th Cir. 2016).