BENZONIA — A former health director for Benzie and Leelanau counties who lost his position amid allegations he sexually harassed a female subordinate is taking his employer to federal court.
“Moving forward with legal action is the only way to move forward and clear my name,” said William Crawford, who served 13 years as health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department until he was demoted to a part-time position in 2012.
Crawford’s attorney Nick Roumel filed a case this week in United States District Court’s Western District of Michigan against the Board of Health in Benzie and Leelanau counties. The suit contends health board officials violated Crawford’s right of due process by not informing him of the details of the accusations before publicly stripping him of his job.
“They deprived him the opportunity to defend himself against the charges,” he said.
A female subordinate at the Health Department’s Benzie office filed the harassment complaint. Her accusation said Crawford persistently left the work area to get her coffee, waited to follow her into work and to her car and stared at female coworkers’ breasts.
Roumel said health officials never warned Crawford that the alleged behavior was unacceptable and, even if true, none of it is close to the legal definition of sexual harassment.
“They should have been able to go to him and say, ‘You may not be aware of this, but so-and-so is uncomfortable,” he said. “... It’s so cynical to use incidents like getting coffee for people and walking people into the building as basis for sexual harassment.”
The court filing also quotes Crawford’s optometrist as stating his near-sighted patient has to tilt his head for the best vision out of his corrective lenses. Roumel argues this combined with Crawford’s 6-foot-tall height could give the mistaken impression he was looking down at his female coworkers’ chests.
The lawsuit also lists Crawford’s replacement Jenifer Murray as a defendant and alleges she “instigated and encouraged” the subordinate’s complaint in order to gain the health officer position. Murray declined comment until she could speak with her attorneys. Attempts to contact health board members and their attorney were unsuccessful.
Roumel said the suit was filed after nothing came from a December “name-clearing hearing” in which about 50 friends, family members and coworkers supported Crawford. The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages resulting from his loss in pay.
“Potentially he could get his job restored,” he said.