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8th Circuit Affirms Denial in Police Bias Case

ST. LOUIS (CN) - The Eighth Circuit affirmed a federal court's denial of a motion filed by a trio of St. Louis police officers accused of racial discrimination against a fellow officer.

Sgt. David Bonenberger, a white man, applied for the position of Assistant Academy Director of the St. Louis Police Academy, but claimed in a 2012 lawsuit that he was passed over for a less qualified black female.

Bonenberger claimed that city Police Academy Director Lt. Michael Muxo told him not to even apply for an assistant director opening because it was going to a black woman.

Bonenberger said that Muxo told him that a higher-up, Lt. Col. Reggie Harris, wanted to "bring color down to the academy."

Bonenberger applied but was not called for an interview. Angela Taylor, a black woman, was selected.

An all-white jury awarded Bonenberger $620,000.

Muxo, Harris and then-police chief Daniel Isom appealed the federal court's denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law. The trio argued that Bonenberger's speculative testimony did not provide enough evidence that an adverse employment action had taken place to get the discrimination claim to the jury.

A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit upheld the federal court's denial of the motion, finding that Bonenberger had suffered an adverse employment action because the position he sought had supervisory duties, regular hours, greater prestige and an increased potential for promotion.

"These materially different working conditions provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion Sergeant Bonenberger suffered an adverse employment action," Chief Judge William Jay Riley wrote. "Because there were 'probative facts to support the verdict,' the district court did not err by denying appellants' motion for judgment as a matter of law on Sergeant Bonenberger's discrimination claims."

The defendants also argued that a reasonable jury could not have found evidence of a conspiracy, because Bonenberger's and Sgt. Deborah Boelling's testimonies were that Harris and Muxo had decided to hire a black woman, not that the two agreed.

While that is one reasonable interpretation of the testimony, the Eighth Circuit ruled it wasn't the only one.

"Sergeant Boelling testified: '[Lieutenant Muxo] told me that [Lieutenant Colonel] Harris wanted a black female in the position, and that there no way [sic] they were going to put a white male in that position." (Emphasis added)," Riley wrote. "A reasonable jury could interpret Sergeant Boelling's use of 'they' to mean Lieutenant Muxo was referring to himself, Lieutenant Colonel Harris, and possibly Chief Isom. This interpretation properly was left to the jury."

Judges Raymond W. Gruender and Jane Kelly concurred.

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