Pleban & Petruska Law, L.L.C.
    Attorneys at Law
2010 S. Big Bend Blvd   
St. Louis MO 63117   
Phone: 314-645-6666   
Fax: 314-645-7376   

Recent Cases and News

 

Missouri Appellate Court Rules in Favor of STL Police Officer in Reverse Discrimination Suit

stlouis.cbslocal.com

Maria Keena (@kmoxmaria) January 19, 2016 2:50 PM

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an $800,000 jury verdict for a St. Louis police officer.

Sgt. David Bonenberger filed a reverse discrimination suit against the Metropolitan Police Department and three of its representatives – former St. Louis police chief Dan Isom, Lt. Col. Reggie Harris, and Lt. Michael Muxo.

Bonenberger currently is the St. Louis Police Association president.

The appellate court determined there was sufficient evidence to support the 2012 federal jury’s verdict that the police department discriminated against Bonenberger. His suit contended he was passed over for a leadership position in the St. Louis Police Academy.

At the time, Muxo was the academy director and allegedly told Bonenberger not to apply for the job because it was going to an African-American woman. Sgt. Angela Taylor, who is African-American, was put into the job, and Bonenberger was never interviewed for the position.

Bonenberger’s attorney, Lynette Petruska of Pleban and Petruska, said in a news release that it’s time for the St. Louis Police Department to pay up.

Sgt. David Bonenberger awarded $620K in discrimination suit

Dave Bonenberger

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) August 23, 2013 - The St. Louis Police Board has yet to comment on a case of reverse discrimination.

The court sided with Sgt. David Bonenberger Thursday in a lawsuit against the City of St. Louis.  Boneberger says he didn't get an interview for a position at the Police Academy because of his gender and race. In fact, he claims he was told not to even apply because the position was going to be given to a black woman.  "I can't believe this. I can't believe that somebody is actually doing this. I mean you hear about it, and you think, 'Oh that's really unbelievable that somebody would do that,' but then when it happens to you, it kind of stops you in your tracks," said Sgt. David Bonenberger.

The court awarded Bonenberger $620,000.

Sgt. David Bonenberger Awarded $620,000 for "Reverse Discrimination" by St. Louis Police

Lynette M. Petruska, Attorney
Lynette M. Petruska, Attorney
By Danny Wicentowski River Front Times
Published Thu., Aug. 22 2013 at 4:00 PM
Photo by Danny Wicentowski

Sgt. David Bonenberger's lawsuit against the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for racial discrimination ended in victory yesterday, when a federal jury agreed that Bonenberger, who is white, was unfairly passed over for a position in favor of another candidate simply because she was black.

"I wanted to give the police department an opportunity to make it right," Bonenberger said at a press conference today at his lawyer's office. "I had no choice. I couldn't roll over and let it go. I had to stand up for myself and everyone else who was employed by the police department."

The twenty-year veteran of the force was awarded $620,000 by the jury roughly three years after Bonenberger first sent in an application to become the assistant director of the police academy in September, 2010. The civil suit claimed that Bonenberger's superiors told him they had already decided to give the job to an African American female sergeant named Angela Taylor.

See also: ACLU Sues St. Louis County Police Department Over Sunshine Law in Racial Profiling Case

In one instance, Bonenberger described how Lt. Michael Muxo approached him at the scene of an unrelated investigation and, pulling him to a nearby alley, told him that he had instructions from Col. Reggie Harris, who is African American, to "bring color down to the Academy," and that if Bonenberger didn't make a fuss, he could expect to still land a good position in the future.


At the press conference, Bonenberger said that the assistant director position would have been a "dream job," and that he felt forced to act after realizing what had been done to him.

"The St. Louis Police Department has been my life for nearly twenty years, and I've got no plans for leaving," said Bonenberger, who is also the president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. "It is a fine police department, and I hope the results from this will make it better."


Proving racial discrimination in hiring can be a murky proposition, and cases can devolve into a he-said-she-said dance of trying to use indirect evidence to prove discrimination. However, two e-mails may have made this case different.

One was an e-mail sent by Bonenberger to another party, in which the sergeant described how Muxo had told him not to apply for the position. The second e-mail was sent by Bonenberg to Muxo himself, informing the lieutenant that he had applied even though Bonenberger knew the job was pre-chosen.

Muxo never responded to the second e-mail, a mistake that proved particularly damning in front of the jury, explained Lynette Petruska, Bonenberger's lawyer.

"He never said, 'What are you talking about? We haven't picked anybody yet!'" Petruska said. "There are two e-mails that show that [Lt. Muxo] knew that position was filled and that the fix was in." By adding in conversations between Muxo and another officer, Petruska said they were able show concrete evidence of discrimination to the jury.

"Muxo is an idiot," Petruska added. "He wasn't being shy about this. Most people aren't stupid enough to admit that they're illegally discriminating. We had direct evidence."

The police department released a statement to Daily RFT, saying:

The Board of Police Commissioners will discuss the lawsuit and make recommendations regarding the next course of action. The Department is not at liberty to discuss pending litigation and comment on personnel matters.

Ex-junkyard owner gets her due: $817,000

 
Opal Henderson and Chet Pleban proudly show the check for $817,000 as compensation after the city of St. Louis shut her down in 2008 after a contentious fight. Photo by Karen Elshout
 
 
 
Missouri Lawyers Weekly

by Donna Walter

Published: June 1st, 2012

 

For someone holding an $817,000 check, Opal Henderson didn’t seem very happy.

“I would still be there today if they didn’t take the property,” the 82-year-old said of the salvage yard she owned and operated for decades — until the city of St. Louis shut her down in 2008 after a contentious condemnation fight.

Six years after her property was condemned for redevelopment by Disper Schmitt Properties, Henderson received her final check for the property Thursday at her lawyers’ office. With perfectly coifed blond hair and red fingernails to match her red jacket, Henderson sat in the conference room of Pleban & Petruska, in Richmond Heights, and recalled the saga that has finally come to an end.

She’s satisfied with the outcome, she said, because she has to be.

She still visits the junkyard almost every day.

“It comes natural to go down there because that was my everyday life,” she said.

“I’m glad it’s over with, … but it’s still not enough money for all those years of harassment,” she said. She blames Alderwoman Phyllis Young for waging a campaign to get the junkyard out of the neighborhood; the aggravation she endured was worth at least $2 million, Henderson said.

Still, Henderson said she has plans for the money, including trips to New Orleans, New York and Mississippi, as well as new hearing aids. And she plans to invest some for her three children.

The junkyard, at 1202 S. Seventh St., had been in the LaSalle neighborhood since the 1930s. Disper Schmitt Properties had signed on to develop the area into the Ice House District, starting with the Old Rock House, a bar and restaurant next to Henderson’s salvage yard.

Today the former salvage yard’s land sits vacant and unpaved, said Henderson’s attorney, Chet Pleban. “None of it has been completed, and it’s probably not likely to be completed,” he said.

Henderson, who married into the salvage business in 1947 and is widowed, turned down a $200,000 offer from the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. In 2006, her property was ordered condemned, a decision she appealed all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. She lost on appeal, when the high court quashed a preliminary writ prohibiting the trial judge from taking further action in the condemnation case. In 2008, a group of condemnation commissioners valued the property at $388,500, so Henderson took her case to a jury, which in April 2010 awarded her a little more than $1 million.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District affirmed the jury’s million-dollar verdict last November, and in March the state Supreme Court denied the LCRA’s motion to transfer.

“I truly feel sorry for anybody that has to go through eminent domain,” Pleban said Thursday.

On March 27, a day after the state appeals court issued its mandate, Pleban filed a federal lawsuit on Henderson’s behalf in what he said was an attempt to get paid. In the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Henderson alleged the lawyer for the LCRA and the developer on March 7 offered her $500,000. The federal lawsuit alleged an unjust taking, due process violations, conspiracy to violate constitutional rights and fraud. The federal lawsuit was dismissed Tuesday.

According to Case.net, the LCRA deposited $803,700 into the St. Louis Circuit Court registry in April and the remaining $13,300 late last week.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s spokeswoman, Kara Bowlin, said the LCRA and Disper Schmitt Properties had an agreement calling for the developer to pay the judgment. The LCRA paid about $300,000, which the developer will reimburse, she said.

“If [Henderson] were younger, I would’ve said, ‘Let it ride,’” Pleban said, pointing out that the award includes $196,500 in interest that accrued since May 12, 2010.

Opal Henderson finally gets check

 

7:46 PM, May 31, 2012   

St. Louis (KSDK)

 

She's been waiting about seven years to get about $1 million owed to her after being booted out of her family business.
The wait is finally over.
On Thursday Opal Henderson was presented a check for the amount of $817,036.
A court awarded her $1,009,000 after the city and a developer used eminent domain to force her to move out of junk yard and make room for a bar.
After deductions and lawyer fees, Opal was awarded the more than $817,000.
Opal says she's just glad it's over and she explained what she plans to do with the money.
"I'm glad it's over with. But I would still like to be working. I don't like being inside. I've been outside all my life," she said.
Opal does say she plans to visit her two sons and grandkids, but for the most part she plans on investing her money for her family.

St. Louis police chief takes stand as officer fights for his job

BY CHRISTINE BYERS • cbyers@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8087 

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2012 12:05 am

ST. LOUIS

• A hearing Wednesday to help determine the fate of a police officer's career turned into an airing of some of the department's dirty laundry and included an interrogation of the police chief.

The punishment phase of Officer Joseph Seper's Police Board trial unfolded during a four-hour hearing at police headquarters in which his defense attorney, Chet Pleban, invoked the names of other officers who, like Seper, were accused of falsifying police reports.

Seper's case centers on a dispute over what led to the Oct. 9, 2008, arrest of a man on an unlawful weapons charge. Seper wrote in his police report that Sgt. Robert Niemira saw the suspect toss a "dark-colored object" during a foot chase, Pleban said.

Seper, 32, maintains that his then-supervisor, Sgt. Kelly McGinnis, changed those words to "a gun,"Pleban said.

Niemira, a detective with the now-defunct Crime Suppression Unit, denies telling Seper that he saw the man toss a gun. Niemira says Seper made that up.

Seper was acquitted in December 2009 of a criminal charge of falsifying a police report and is now arguing his innocence to the Board of Police Commissioners. The Internal Affairs Division has recommended Seper be fired.

Police Chief Dan Isom sparred with Pleban for about an hour during the hearing as Pleban named three other officers whom the department has deemed guilty of falsifying reports during the last six years. Two were given suspensions and the third a written reprimand.

Isom was the commander of the Internal Affairs Division when one officer's penalty was determined.

"Can you tell me why he gets a 10-day suspension and Seper gets fired?" Pleban asked.

"We are a better police department under my administration and our standards are higher today," Isom said.

Seper said Wednesday that his job status had been in limbo for three years because of the case.

A transcript of the hearing will be sent to the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, who ultimately will determine Seper's fate.

Owner of closed salvage yard sues over unpaid $1 million judgment

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 12:00 am - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

• Almost two years after a jury awarded $1 million to a St. Louis woman whose property was condemned for the proposed, and unfinished, Ice House District here, the judgment and interest still have not been paid, the woman's lawyer said Tuesday. Opal Henderson spent six decades running Opal's Salvage Yard at Seventh and Hickory streets until she lost it to eminent domain in 2008. On April 7, 2010, a St. Louis jury decided that the property was worth $1,009,000. But St. Louis' Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority appealed. That appeal was rejected first by the Missouri Court of Appeals last November and then the Missouri Supreme Court this month. In a suit filed by attorney Chet Pleban Tuesday against the city, the aldermen, the Ice House developers, St. Louis' Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and others, Pleban writes that a lawyer offered Henderson $500,000 after the state Supreme Court appeal failed. By then Henderson was still owed more than $720,000, including interest of more than $100,000. But Pleban said that Henderson, who he said had been harassed for years, wanted the entirety of what was owed to her. A lawyer handling the appeal and a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay did not return calls or emails seeking comment. The city has said that one of the developers involved in the Ice House District, Disper-Schmitt Properties, would be responsible for paying Henderson.



South city junkyard owner still waiting to be paid for land lost to eminent domain

  • Wednesday, 28 March 2012 01:48 - The World News II

The owner of a south city junkyard is still waiting to be paid the million dollar judgement she won after losing her business to eminent domain.

Opal Henderson owned Opal's Salvage Yard at 7th and Hickory in south St. Louis for more than 60 years. In 2008 the city and Ice House developers Disper-Schmitt Properties used eminent domain to force her out. 

Henderson won the million dollar judgement in April 2010.  Since then, she's won two appeals filed by the St. Louis' Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, including a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court earlier this month.  But the 82 year old says she still hasn't seen a dime.  

Her attorney, Chet Pleban filed another lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to get her the money.  With interest, she's currently due about $1.1 million.

 The land is still awaiting development.  It is currently a vacant lot.



Opal Henderson sues Disper-Schmitt Properties for $1million

 7:22 PM, Mar 27, 2012 - By Grant Bissell - KSDK
St. Louis (KSDK) - A senior citizen says she was harassed and bullied out of her family business. Now she says she's being cheated out of more than one million dollars.
Opal Henderson, 82, owned a junk yard near Seventh and Hickory Street in St. Louis for more than 60 years. In 2008 the city and developer Disper-Schmitt Properties used eminent domain to force Henderson out and make room for the Old Rock House bar.
Henderson was supposed to be paid $1,009,000 for the property. But the developer never paid up. The ruling had been tied up in the appeals process until March sixth of this year.
"I want them to pay me," said Henderson.
 "Pay me for my harassment, my aggravation, my loss of my property and my family's loss."
Henderson is now suing Disper Schmitt Properties for the money she's owed plus interest.
"They don't want to pay," said Henderson's lawyer, Chet Pleban. "I suspect what they're doing is waiting for her to die."
Disper-Schmitt was also supposed to improve the property. But to date no work has been done. Today the lot sits empty. Henderson's junk is gone, but the lot itself isn't in any better shape. Trash litters the ground and in some parts the area is overgrown with weeds.
NewsChannel 5 reached out to the developers. G. Mark Disper didn't return phone calls, but Daniel Schmitt says he never knew the final amount he owed Henderson. And since the deal was never completed, his company couldn't do work on the property.

Henderson's lawyer says the amount was agreed upon in court years ago. Now it's just a matter of figuring in the interest.
During a phone call on Tuesday, Schmitt admitted his company does owe Henderson the money and agreed to pay.
"I'm prepared to take a phone call from Chet (Pleban) to figure out the exact numbers that are due and see what we have, if there are any discrepancies and then work out a payment arrangement," said Schmitt. Henderson's attorney says with interest, Henderson is now owed around $1,117,000.


Woman's suing of son hurts her despite victory


ST. CHARLES COUNTY •

The decision to sue her own son wasn't an easy one for Gloria Smith, certainly not one without considerable tears and angst.

But when she became convinced that her older son and his wife had taken more than $570,000 of her and her late husband's life savings and weren't going to give it back, she did. And she won. It's a hard victory to celebrate, though — much as it was a hard suit to file. A month after being awarded $571,071 in actual damages and another $250,000 in punitive damages stemming from the civil suit Smith filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court, her reasons for suing her son still make her cry.

"I kept thinking and hoping that he'd give it back, but he never would" said Smith, 88, in an interview last week. "I didn't want people to know about it because they'd think, 'You're terrible, suing your son.' But you don't have a choice. We tried everything we could." But while she initially didn't want anyone to know about the suit, she now wants others, especially the elderly, to know what happened so they won't be fooled into making the missteps she did. She believes her late husband's namesake, Arthur "Lou" Smith Jr., set his sights on her savings after her husband of 63 years died Sept. 12, 2007. She said her son wouldn't have had the nerve to try what he did when her husband, nicknamed "Smitty," was alive. "When I was grieving for him I guess he felt I was an easy mark," said Gloria Smith, who had lived in a house in south St. Louis County for more than 30 years until her son moved her miles away to O'Fallon, Mo. "I don't think I'd sleep nights if I'd done something like that." Lou Smith did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

FRUGAL LIFESTYLE

Based on appearances, few would have labeled Gloria Smith and her husband wealthy.

Smitty Smith left school in the eighth grade — not because he wanted to, but because his family needed him to help farm. The two met in the 1940s, when he was working for a dairy. He joined the Marine Corps, and the two married while he was on a 30-day furlough. He had a couple of different jobs until the couple opened Smitty's Welding Supply in 1981 on the city's south side. Over the years, the couple collected coins and other currency bit by bit. They were frugal and lived simply.

"We had friends who had better clothes and better things than we did, but we were all friends," Gloria Smith said. "We didn't know how much our Social Security would be. We wanted to have enough to retire on."Having lived through the Great Depression, they weren't completely trusting of banks, so much of what they had saved they hid in their home, in locked, fireproof boxes in a locked closet.Smitty Smith never did retire, though. He worked until his death at the age of 84. By then, it's estimated the couple had put away more than $390,000 in coins, cash and other valuables in their home. And they had about the same amount in bank accounts and certificates of deposit, said Gloria Smith's attorney in the civil case,Lynette Petruska. They had two sons: Lou, of Wentzville, and Paul, of Lubbock, Texas. Lou, the older, had been estranged from the family but came back into the picture shortly before Smitty Smith's death, Gloria Smith said. She believed her elder son's intentions were good when he asked her to give him durable power of attorney so he could help make health care-related decisions if need be, Gloria Smith said. But when she signed papers giving him power of attorney in January 2008, he didn't tell her that the documents also gave him power over his mother's finances, with his wife as his successor, the mother said.The day after Gloria Smith signed the documents, her son removed $67,000 from her savings account and $85,000 from her checking account, according to Petruska. Of that, $100,000 was placed in a certificate of deposit in the name of Gloria Smith's trust, though the address and phone number given were Lou Smith's, according to the lawsuit. The remaining $52,000 was put in a bank safe deposit box, but later was removed, with her son being the only one to access the box before it was removed, according to the suit.That March, Lou Smith tried to persuade his mother to leave her home for a retirement home in O'Fallon. Gloria Smith resisted; she didn't want to be isolated from friends and others she had relied on.That same month, the mother asked for her bank records she hadn't seen since January, but her son told her he was too busy, according to the suit. He had set up the accounts to list his address instead of his mother's, the suit said.Shortly thereafter, Lou Smith and his wife told Gloria Smith she'd be moving to O'Fallon and gave her less than a week to pack, Gloria Smith said. Before the move, the couple went to her house and told her that the coins and other valuables in her home should be taken to her bank, according to the suit. They took the items to their car, but when Gloria Smith prepared to go with them, they told her they didn't have enough time to take the valuables to the bank because Lou Smith had to get back to his job at Boeing, according to the suit.That was the last time Gloria Smith saw most of the $390,000 in cash and valuables, according to the suit.By that August, Lou Smith had taken more than $52,000 from his mother's safe deposit box and about $225,000 from two of her CDs, and had used $135,000 from one of her CDs to buy Boeing stock, according to Petruska and the suit.

VALUABLES VANISH

With the help of her other son, the mother revoked Lou Smith's power of attorney that month and asked that her money and valuables be returned. Lou Smith told her that it was a misunderstanding and that he would return her assets, Gloria Smith said. But very little was — only about $17,000 in cash and some jewelry, papers and photos. Lou Smith eventually transferred the Boeing stock to her, but it was liquidated at a loss of $59,481 to the mother, according to the suit.

"They just used it as if it was their own money," Gloria Smith said. Bank records show how much of the money was moved, including $70,000 to pay off Lou Smith and his wife's credit card bills, Petruska said. "He testified at trial that his father's deathbed wish was that he take care of his mother," the attorney said. "And he testified at that trial that he fulfilled his father's deathbed wish." Even with the judgment against her son, Gloria Smith doesn't know if she'll get her savings back. Some of that money, she said, was to have gone to her two sons after her death. Her other son, Paul, is angry that his mother has had to deal with so much turmoil.

"They built a nice home, they had a good family, they paid their bills," Paul Smith said. "If it's all that you have and somebody takes it, it's a pretty big deal."

After the verdicts were read, Gloria Smith found several jurors in the case waiting for her at the courthouse. She thanked them, and they hugged her.

Paul Smith believes his brother should be held accountable. "This is one of those dark little secrets that some families never share," he said.