Haldimand-Norfolk top doc alleges ‘relentless harassment’ in lawsuit against former employer

Haldimand-Norfolk’s top doctor is suing his former employer.

As first reported by CBC News, acting medical officer of health Dr. Matt Strauss is seeking more than $600,000 in damages and lost wages from Queen’s University and Dr. Stephen Archer, head of the school’s department of medicine.

Archer was Strauss’s direct supervisor when he was an assistant professor of medicine at Queen’s from July 2019 to November 2021, at which time Strauss also practiced internal medicine and worked in the ICU at Kingston General Hospital.

In a statement of claim filed on Oct. 20, Strauss alleges that his time at Queen’s was marked by “consistent and relentless harassment … humiliation and belittlement” by Archer and other Queen’s employees — motivated, Strauss claims, by his public criticism of lockdowns and other health measures implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strauss claims the “malicious, aggressive, condescending and defamatory statements” levelled by Archer in emails and letters to Strauss and his colleagues damaged his reputation and forced him to resign due to the hostile work environment.

Archer’s criticisms of Strauss’s COVID-related newspaper columns and tweets caused Strauss to “become upset and anxious,” according to the claim.

None of the allegations in the claim have been tested in court. A statement of defence has not yet been filed.

“I am not sure how the CBC became aware of a recent court filing issued by my lawyer,” Strauss posted to Twitter Thursday evening.

“It is my strong preference that this matter remain between the parties involved. Therefore, I will not be providing any comment about this case.

“That said, I am a firm believer in academic freedom, particularly on matters of significant public interest. I will continue to advocate for this principle in my public commentary.”

In response to a request for comment sent to the university and Archer, the university said it was “aware of the statement of claim filed with the court.”

“The university has not been served with the claim and therefore has not filed, nor been required to file a statement of defence. As such, the claim represents only the plaintiff’s perspective,” the statement read.

“As this is a Human Resources matter, the university will not be commenting further.”

Archer did not respond directly to the request for comment.

According to the publicly available court filing, Archer accused Dr. Strauss of “grabbing headlines for the wrong reasons.”

“You were hired to be a physician not a publicist,” Archer allegedly told him in a December 2020 email included in the statement of claim, adding he was “very concerned about your maturity and professionalism and believe your professed love of freedom of expression is more self centered than in service of our patients or trainees.”

Strauss said his superior defamed him by suggesting he was “promulgating false information and not caring about the health of the public” while “seeding mistrust for public health institutions” through “dangerous and misleading” public comments.

Archer’s public censure of Strauss’s activities came despite what Strauss claims was an “entirely positive” annual performance review in March 2021.

Strauss said Archer targeted him in part because he had signed the Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter published in October 2020 calling for people at least risk of adverse affects from COVID-19 to be allowed to live with few public health restrictions in order to encourage the development of herd immunity.

Archer published a five-point refutation of the Great Barrington Declaration on the university’s website in the following month.

Strauss contends the “eight months of harassment” he allegedly experienced at Queen’s was a calculated campaign by Archer to get him to quit his job. After raising objections regarding how he was being treated, Strauss claims Archer informed him in June 2021 his contract would not be renewed after it came to an end the following year.

Strauss argues that left him with no choice but to leave the university in November 2021, with more than seven months left on his contract.

That September Strauss was hired as acting medical officer of health in Haldimand-Norfolk.

The lawsuit seeks at least $600,000 in damages — including half a million for defamation — along with wages and benefits lost due to what Strauss’ filing describes as his “constructive dismissal.”

Strauss also wants the university to delete what he considers defamatory statements made about him by Queen’s staff from any university platform and prevent their further dissemination.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator