Jan 26, 2016

Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury must pay $900,000 to former employee, jury decides

January 25, 2016

Los Angeles Times

Stephen Ceasar

A Los Angeles jury on Monday ordered Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, to pay about $924,500 to a lawyer who alleged that he sexually harassed her while she worked for him and that she was fired after she began investigating claims that he raped a yoga student.

Attorney Minakshi Jafa-Bodden said in her lawsuit that she suffered gender discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual harassment during her time working for Choudhury.

During testimony, Choudhury, 69, alternately described accusations of mistreatment and abuse of Jafa-Bodden and other employees as “lies” and “big lies,” drawing laughs from the jury. Choudhury and his attorneys said Jafa-Bodden was let go because she did not have a license to practice law in the United States.

Jurors deliberated for about a day before returning with a unanimous verdict in favor of Jafa-Bodden, said Mark Quigley, who along with attorney Carla Minnard represented Jafa-Bodden.

“Jafa-Bodden faced retaliation and intimidation when she refused to stay silent about witnessing illegal behavior,” Quigley said in a statement released after the jury's decision Monday afternoon. “This verdict sends an important message, that speaking out when you see signs of sexual abuse is the right thing to do.”

The jury also found that Choudhury acted with malice, oppression and fraud — findings that allow Jafa-Bodden to seek punitive damages. The hearing for punitive damages will begin Tuesday, Quigley said.

Choudhury's lawyer, Robert Tafoya, declined to comment.

Jafa-Bodden’s lawsuit is one of several filed against the eccentric guru, who built a yoga empire and amassed a fortune after moving to California in 1971. Choudhury gained millions of followers through his style of yoga, which consists of a series of 26 poses, done over 90 minutes in a room heated to 104 degrees.

See the most-read stories this hour >>

Six other women in recent years have sued Choudhury, alleging that he sexually assaulted or harassed them. One of the women filed court paperwork this month indicating that she and Choudhury had reached a conditional settlement; the filing did not disclose the agreement’s details.

During the trial over Jafa-Bodden’s allegations, Choudhury strongly denied sexually assaulting the women.

“I don't do that,” he testified. “I don't have to.”

Jafa-Bodden alleged that Choudhury persuaded her to leave her native India to work for him as his general counsel in 2011.

During her employment, she alleged, Choudhury repeatedly sexually harassed her and subjected her to obscene comments about women and minority groups. She also accused Choudhury of pressuring her to cover up his sexual harassment of women.

Choudhury admitted while testifying that he referred to his penis during teacher training sessions, which involve a nine-week course required for followers who want to teach at a Bikram-affiliated studio.

Choudhury also said he lied previously under oath on the advice of attorneys, including Jafa-Bodden, when he denied making obscene comments during the sessions. Jafa-Bodden denies telling him to lie.

The lawyer alleged that she was fired in 2013 after she attempted to investigate several allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Choudhury, including a rape claim made by one of his female students.

In 2013, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Choudhury after evaluating allegations from four women who accused him of sexual misconduct.

Three of the women accused him of sexual assault, and another alleged that he attempted to touch her genitals without consent, according to a district attorney's memo obtained by The Times. All four accusers lacked corroborating witnesses and physical evidence, the memo said.


No comments: