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Judge awards $130K in Mississippi Dunes Golf Links sexual harassment case

A popular east metro golf course must pay out $130,000 to former employees who were the targets of sexual harassment and reprisals by the owner, according to a Washington County District Court ruling.

Judge Mary Hannon ruled Monday, Aug. 21, that William Doebler and Mississippi Dunes Golf Links violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and allowed a hostile work environment for employees who faced sexual harassment and reprisal.

Hannon admonished the golf course in her ruling, saying its failure to respond to sex discrimination allegations was "alarming."

"This atmosphere, in which the business owner's actions go unchecked despite (and likely because of) his position of power over the employees at the Dunes likely contributed to a hostile work environment by creating a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated by management and employees believe there is no recourse available to them," Hannon wrote.

The ruling awarded damages to former Mississippi Dunes employees Michelle Johnson and Charlotte Johnson, who were found to have been battered and sexually harassed by Doebler. They, along with two other former employees, Traci Johnson and Wade Strom, were also awarded damages for reprisals stemming from them losing their jobs at the golf course.

The former workers were awarded a total of $130,000. Mississippi Dunes must also pay a $20,000 civil penalty to the state.

"This is an example of really dangerous, longstanding sexual harassment," the plaintiffs' attorney, David Schlesinger, said. "I hope it will cause some change to happen at that golf course."

Doebler, 73, who has homes in Cottage Grove, Red Wing and Bonita Springs, Florida, did not immediately respond to a message left for him at the golf course seeking comment. The judge's ruling states Doebler's attorneys withdrew from the case on July 28. One of those lawyers, Jason Raether, said he can't comment on the case.

Schlesinger said Doebler remains owner of the course and still served as its general manager while the trial was underway.

The ruling followed an eight-day civil court trial after the plaintiffs sued under the MHRA for sex discrimination, reprisal and battery.

'The Brothel'

The trial included testimony about a May 2014 incident at Doebler's home, dubbed "The Brothel" — an apparent reference to the building's historical background — located adjacent to the Dunes property. He lives there with his wife, Barbara DuFrane, who Hannon concluded was a "de facto manager" at Mississippi Dunes.

Traci Johnson, Michelle Johnson and Charlotte Johnson all went to the house, where they were served wine by DuFrane. While there, Doebler touched Charlotte Johnson sexually before joining the women outside and making lewd comments about female genitalia, according to the ruling.

"He made comments about orgies and asked the plaintiffs if they wanted to come upstairs and have a sleepover," the court document states and goes on to note that denials of the allegations by Doebler and DuFrane were not deemed credible by the court.

In her ruling, Hannon determined the behavior at the Brothel "would likely have an impact on the employees' work environment at the Dunes," but that the sexual battery alleged by Charlotte Johnson didn't represent a workplace incident since the women went there voluntarily.

Traci Johnson later reported the incident to her significant other, Strom, who was a bar manager at the Dunes. She didn't report it to other managers "because she did not believe there would be any investigation or resolution and feared that she would lose her job if she reported the owner's conduct." Michelle Johnson also reported the incident to Strom, but not others for fear of losing her job.

Separate incidents formed the grounds for two other claims.

Michelle Johnson testified to sexually inappropriate comments from Doebler and noted how he twice grabbed her buttocks while she was working at the Dunes in 2014. Her testimony was also found credible by the judge.

Traci Johnson reported instances from 2014 when Doebler made inappropriate comments that included sexual propositions. After one exchange made while Traci Johnson was bartending, Doebler explained how "everybody would sell" sex for a price. After being rebuked by Johnson, Doebler put his mouth to a beer glass and "inappropriately licked his lips."

The court found Traci Johnson's testimony about harassment credible, but concluded it didn't clear the MHRA's threshold.

The court document states Strom confronted Doebler later in May 2014 at the Dunes about his sexual harassment of employees, threatening to sue. Strom was fired a few weeks later for what Doebler and DuFrane claimed were "performance issues and for intimidating the company when he threatened Doebler about filing a lawsuit and taking over the Dunes," the court document states. The plaintiffs' personnel files, however, didn't reveal documentation of any performance issues.

The Dunes' bar manager later testified that Doebler's motivation for firing Strom was due to the lawsuit threat.

Doebler also instructed staff not to schedule some employees, including the three Johnson women, for additional shifts.

The court document notes that a previous sexual harassment complaint against Doebler had been settled by the Dunes, which DuFrane was aware of. In that case, filed in 2011, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause that Doebler had sexually harassed the Dunes' former catering director, then fired her after she rejected his advances.

The Human Rights Department found probable cause that the Dunes allowed a hostile work environment to exist.

The 2011 legal action didn't lead to any discipline or change in Doebler's presence at the Dunes, the document states.

"In fact, the opposite occurred," the court filing states, noting that Doebler later took on general manager duties at the Dunes.

When presented with the new report of possible legal action, DuFrane responded, "I wasn't concerned about it because I had heard nothing of it. And no reports had been made."

In the most recent court filing, it's noted Doebler and DuFrane made the same claims against the sexual harassment plaintiffs as they did in 2011 — that they were fabricated in order to extort money.

'Dunes to Diamonds'

Later in 2014, the Dunes, with DuFrane serving as the facility's director, hosted a "Dunes to Diamonds, Ultimate Guys Night Out" where attendees golfed at the links before going to the King of Diamonds strip club. The judge stated the event was promoted for "bachelors, birthdays or break-ups" and described Dunes employees as "Cart Cuties," in addition to the presence of "93X Girls" — scantily clad promotional employees of the Twin Cities radio station.

The three female plaintiffs were working at a Dunes-hosted wedding during the event.

The judge found that promotion of the event "likely contributed to a hostile work environment at the Dunes," especially considering previous sexual harassment allegations there.

Other instances of sexual harassment in 2014 at the Dunes by Doebler included:

• Telling a bartender to cut her shorts shorter.

• Telling a 20-year-old cook, with beer in hand, how he'd call her his mistress, "but you're not that yet."

• Also telling the cook she needed a facelift.

• Comments to a male bartender that the bartender's weight loss likely led to him getting "a lot of action."

• Telling the unofficial general manager that he wanted the golf course's cart girls to be "young, skinny, short-skirted, sexy, hot."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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