A Washington County judge has ruled in favor of four former employees of the Mississippi Dunes golf course in Cottage Grove on claims of battery, sexual harassment and retaliation.
William C. Doebler, a principal owner of the course, lacked credibility when he denied groping women and firing them for complaining, District Judge Mary Hannon said in an order filed Monday. The incidents took place in 2013 and 2014.
Doebler, 73, subjected the women to "sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact and other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature," Hannon wrote.
Specifically, the judge concluded that plaintiff Michelle Johnson proved her civil claim of sexual harassment, that both she and plaintiff Charlotte Johnson were battered, and that plaintiffs Traci Johnson and Wade Strom, suffered retaliation because they were fired after complaining.
None of the Johnsons are related to one another, said their attorney, David Schlesinger of Minneapolis. Michelle Johnson and Traci Johnson were servers and bartenders. Charlotte Johnson was a server and Strom was a bar manager.
According to Hannon's order, incidents included sexual grabbing and Doebler's invitations to have sex. Some of the exchanges occurred at his nearby home, which he called "The Brothel," and others at the golf club. In most instances, Doebler appeared drunk on beer, even during work hours, witnesses testified in a recent trial.
"The court finds that Doebler's inappropriate alcohol consumption likely impacted Doebler's behavior and judgment while working at the Dunes and likely contributed to the hostile work environment at the Dunes," Hannon wrote.
Witnesses who testified in the trial, which concluded in April, said Doebler made statements such as, "My God, you're beautiful," encouraged participation in an orgy, and told a female employee to cut her shorts shorter. In one instance, he told a 20-year-old female cook she needed a face-lift and told a young female seasonal worker, in the judge's words, "to bend over and be taken advantage of in a sexual way," Hannon wrote.
Hannon wrote that accusations against Doebler weren't unprecedented. Previously, she said, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause against Doebler for sexual harassment of his director of catering in 2011. The woman alleged that Doebler fired her for resisting his sexual advances.
No changes were made at the Dunes — managed by Doebler and his wife, Barbara DuFrane — even after allegations of a hostile work environment, Hannon said.
She awarded the Johnsons and Strom damages ranging from $15,000 to $55,000. The judge also ordered Doebler and his company, Links on the Mississippi, Inc., to pay a $20,000 penalty to the state. Possible punitive damages and awarding of attorney's fees remain undecided.