White Officer Sues Alleging Racism and Wins

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on January 28, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed all lower court rulings in favor of a white officer who sued on theories of racial discrimination.

The officer successfully showed (or the police academy failed to disprove) that a reasonable theory existed as to why he was passed over for promotion in favor of a non-white candidate.

"Bring Color Down to the Academy"

Sergeant Bonenberger worked for the St. Louis Metro Police Department. Upon applying for a job for which he did not meet the listed experiential requirements, a superior co-worker told him "not to bother applying because the job was going to a black female ... [and] it was out of his hands." Further discussions with the co-worker indicated a political preference and plan to install a black female "in that position."

The African-American female in question also did not meet the minimum qualifications, scored lower that Bonenberger, but did have fewer behavioral demerits on her record. Despite this, various facts were alleged that indicated a repeated conspiracy or scheme determined to "bring color down to the academy" and that there would be no way even Bonenberger would be granted an interview for the position.

Lawsuit Time

In his complaint, Bonenberger alleged discrimination against him based on his race and invoked the appropriate federal and state laws. He also alleged conspiracy against co-defendants to discriminate against him based on his race. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that no reasonable jury could conclude that the facts supported any such conspiracy or that any discrimination took place. They lost at trial.

District affirms, and so Does the Circuit

The Academy received no sympathy at the district level or the circuit level either. Some of the additional arguments put forth by the Academy to support their motion was the idea the position for which Bonenberger applied "carried no increase in pay, benefits or rank" and thus was not an adverse employment action -- a missing element. The circuit thought this argument completely scurrilous. It was an "adverse employment action" said the circuit, because the job had attendant additional prestige and increased options for promotion. This was adverse enough.

Additionally, the circuit court balked at the promulgated idea that no reasonable jury could have found a conspiracy to discriminate existed. Though it is reasonable that Bonenberger imagined it all, that was not the only reasonable explanation. Thus, a reasonable jury could have concluded and settled on a different theory pushed by the Academy. With this logical inference, the additional facts in the record pushed the court very much beyond the required minimum needed to affirm the lower district court's denial of the movants' request for summary judgment.

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