Doctor was ‘obsessed’ with Hornets dancers. He hired and harassed them, lawsuits say

Doctor was ‘obsessed’ with Hornets dancers. He hired and harassed them, lawsuits say
Charlotte eye doctor, Jonathan Christenbury, surrendered his medical license Wednesday amid accusations he sexually harassed employees at his eye care center. (Credit: Observer Archives)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - The bankruptcy of prominent Charlotte physician Jonathan Christenbury will not delay the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a former employee, a federal judge has ruled.

The employee, a one-time Charlotte Hornets "Honey Bee" who served as the eye doctor's executive assistant, accuses Christenbury of harassment, assault and battery, and wrongful termination, among other allegations.

In a separate complaint, another former member of the Hornets' dance troupe, alleges similar misbehavior by Christenbury, including inappropriate touching and a stream of emails pressuring her for sex.

Likewise, in a third suit that was settled in January, a married mother of two who also worked as Christenbury's assistant describes the doctor as peppering her with questions about her sex life and suggesting she could receive special benefits if she made him "happy."

The Observer does not identify women who say they were victims of sexual harassment or assault.

The complaints say Christenbury, 63, had a pattern of first hiring then preying upon "beautiful young women." When they resisted, he flew into rages, threatened their jobs and frequently withheld their pay, their complaints say.

All of the women say they were in their 20s when Christenbury hired them. All say they were sexually harassed by their boss despite the fact that they refused his advances.

According to the married woman's complaint, Christenbury once blocked his door after a meeting, drew her in against him and licked her neck.

One of the former Honey Bees alleges that Christenbury offered her $5,000 to sleep with him and showed up uninvited in Miami during a weekend get-away she took with fellow Hornets dancers.

The complaint by the other Honey Bee says the physician once asked her if her rear end was "real" before touching it and saying, "Oh yeah, it's real."

The women all say Christenbury retaliated when they rejected his advances and eventually fired them without cause.

Meanwhile, their attorney likened Christenbury's alleged behavior to Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul whose long list of harassment scandals set off the worldwide #metoo movement.

In a fourth lawsuit, four other former female employees of Christenbury accuse him of wage-and-hour violations by illegally withholding bonuses or improperly reducing their pay.

All the pending legal actions automatically were put on hold when Christenbury filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

But in what one legal expert describes as an unusual move, Chief U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney of Charlotte this week lifted the bankruptcy freeze in the case of one of the former Honey Bees scheduled to go before a jury in November.

Meg Maloney, a Charlotte employment attorney representing all the former Christenbury employees, said the allegations against the physician demand their day in court.

"This is very serious lawsuit," she told the Observer. "We filed before the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but there are a lot of similarities to the allegations."

Maloney said she is hoping for similar court relief for "the other victims" of Christenbury and his company.

Whitney's order is far from routine, according to Charlotte bankruptcy attorney Heather Culp, who says she has not seen a similar decision by a judge in more than a decade.

Whitney has a reputation for keeping his cases moving quickly. But what makes his order even more unusual, according to Culp, is that he issued it on his own, not in reaction to a motion from either party in the case.

The lawsuit scheduled for trial in November also names Christenbury Eye Center and the company's chief operating officer, Ellie Pena-Benarroch as defendants.

Pena-Benarroch, according to the lawsuit, "covers up Christenbury's sexual harassment and participates in the retaliation against his targets."

In late November, Christenbury surrendered his license to the N.C. Medical Board.

He closed his 30-year practice soon afterward.

His attorneys in the case scheduled for trial did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment Friday.

'Obsessed' with the Honey Bees

Christenbury rose to local and regional prominence by offering among the first LASIK eye surgeries in Charlotte.

Around the office, he commonly referred to himself as "God," the lawsuits say. He also described himself to some of his employees as a "nymphomaniac."

When searching for office staff, Christenbury searched nightclubs, restaurants and modeling agencies, the lawsuits say.

He told one of his accusers that he wanted "pretty faces" around him at work because "pretty people tend to have pretty personalities," according to the former Honey Bee's complaint.

In 2015, Christenbury "became obsessed" with the Honey Bees, based on their beauty, athleticism, celebrity and his desire to add them "to his stable of women he could choose from to sexually harass" and potentially sleep with, the lawsuits say.

The first of the Hornets dancers to join Christenbury's staff was hired in November 2014 to become the doctor's executive assistant. She was in her early 20s, according to her lawsuit, and had no office experience.

The woman says Christenbury made her sit at his desk and would get angry if she interacted with other employees. He turned up at Hornets games to watch her dance, the lawsuit says, and later asked the woman if her boyfriend would mind if she dated an older man.

The woman, according to her lawsuit, repeatedly told Christenbury she was not interested in a relationship but grew frightened by his "escalating inappropriate behavior as well as his unpredictable temper and rages."

She began dressing down to avoid his attentions, the lawsuit says. Christenbury began complaining to an office manager, and twice sent the woman home to change, the lawsuit says.

Christenbury ordered her firing in January 2015, according to the lawsuit. He described her to another office worker as no longer being "a good fit," the lawsuit says.

'Creepy old man'

That spring, a second Honey Bee – a single mom in her mid 20s – took on a sales and marketing job in the spring of 2015 and eventually was paid extra to handle Christenbury's errands.

According to her complaint, Christenbury asked her to be his girlfriend and to have sex with him twice a week. He also offered to pay her $5,000 if she slept with him, the lawsuit says.

While the woman also says she always refused, the propositions from her boss did not stop, her lawsuit says.

On another occasion at Christenbury's apartment, where she had gone to pick up his dry cleaning, Christenbury pulled up her skirt and grabbed her buttocks, the lawsuit says.

The woman, who was pregnant at the time, left in tears, the lawsuit says. From that point on she began carrying a gun in her purse during her errands at Christenbury's apartment because she was so concerned about her safety, her lawsuit says.

In May 2015, both of the dancers who worked for Christenbury took part in a Honey Bees fashion show at the North Carolina Music Factory. The clientele was mostly in their 20s and 30s. But after the event, according to two of the complaints, the dancers began conversing online about the "creepy old man" who stood next to the stage and filmed and photographed the Honey Bees as they walked the runway.

When the dancer who also worked as Christenbury's assistant looked at some photographs of the show, she discovered that her colleagues were talking about Christenbury, her lawsuit says.

Several photos of the eye doctor standing by the runway with his phone camera in hand have been added as evidence in the case scheduled for trial.

Researcher Maria David contributed.