Dec 18, 2016

Attorney Who Toppled Bikram Founder Could Take Over Yoga Empire

Bonnie Eslinger
December 18, 2016

Bikram Choudhury, known for a form of yoga that subjects participants to room temperatures of 105 degrees, was now in the hot seat. Taking the stand in a Los Angeles courtroom in January, he was faced with questions about allegations he not only sexually harassed and then terminated his in-house counsel, but created an offensive and degrading workplace environment for women in general.

“Have you in fact referred to women as bitches?” asked Carla Minnard of Minnard Bosch LLP, the attorney for plaintiff Minakshi Jafa-Bodden.

The 70-year-old founder of Bikram yoga sat posture-perfect, dressed in a black suit and tie, his shoulder-length brown hair freed from the top knot he usually sports while teaching. Dismissively, Choudhury shrugged and said he only uses such language when referring to someone in the third person, giving “look at that asshole” as an example.

“But I don't tell somebody face to face,” Choudhury said to the jury. “That I don't do.”

Minnard asked if he used the derogatory term during the yoga teacher trainings he led around the world, which are largely attended by women.

The trainings, Choudhury said, were “ a completely different” matter.

How about the phrase “pussy yoga”? the attorney asked.

All the time, he replied.

Later, after concluding his testimony, the Indian yoga guru gave a thumbs-up, apparently thinking he had “knocked it out of the park,” Minnard later told Law360. But the jury had other ideas, concluding at the end of the three-week trial that Choudhury sexually harassed and wrongfully fired his former legal adviser, also determining he acted with malice, oppression and fraud. The damages were pegged at $7.4 million.

Standing outside the courtroom flanked by her attorneys, Jafa-Bodden told reporters she was “gobsmacked.”

But the judgment, later amended to $6.7 million, has proved hard to collect. In filings opposing Jafa-Bodden’s attempts to seize his personal property, Choudhury claimed the litigation has left him financially ruined. The case, his lawyers claimed in a Sept. 23 filing, has forced him out of business in the U.S., and left his former legal adviser “chasing ashes.”

As it turns out, there may be something to recover from the ashes after all. Almost a year after the jury delivered its verdict, the attorney who testified that harassment from her former boss had destroyed “every facet” of her life could end up not only collecting on her millions, but taking over his yoga empire.

On Tuesday, a California judge granted Jafa-Bodden’s request for assigned rights to payments from any licensing, franchise or intellectual property agreements owned by Choudhury or his yoga teacher college, including revenue streams from the studios, his “Bikram yoga” and “Bikram” trademarks, numerous domain names, and copyrights for his books and training courses.

He also granted her motion for the appointment of a post-judgment receiver, tasked with the power to seize and sell Choudhury's trademarks, copyrights and domain names. It will be up to the receiver to find the highest bidder for Choudhury’s IP, but Jafa-Bodden — unemployed since Choudhury fired her in March 2013 — is considering a bid.

In an interview with Law360, Jafa-Bodden said she has not made any firm decisions but doesn’t want to see the valued practice that Choudhury developed, based on a sequence of 26 yoga poses, go away.

“I would definitely be interested in bringing healing to the Bikram yoga community. We've said all along we should separate the man from the yoga,” Jafa-Bodden said. “What better way to achieve that? Because people actually like the yoga.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark A. Borenstein held back on determining what specific authority the receiver would have over Choudhury’s intellectual property, saying he wanted to re-review Jafa-Bodden’s motion to ensure the receiver’s powers weren’t too broad.

As Jafa-Bodden considers her options, her current attorney, Joseph Chora of Chora Young LLP, said the court’s orders were the first “real steps” toward enforcement of the judgment.

“We'll have a change of the guard, a change of the person in charge, and the money will flow to the person who has the right to it,” Chora said. “And it's no longer him.”

Hostile Work Environment

Known to her friends as “Micki,” Jafa-Bodden obtained her degree in England from the University of Birmingham and practiced internationally before coming to the U.S. to work for Choudhury. Petite and soft-spoken, she moved to the U.S. in 2011 from her native India with her young daughter to serve as head of legal and international affairs for Choudhury and the Bikram entities.

Created in the 1970s, Bikram yoga is practiced in sweltering spaces across roughly 600 Bikram-affiliated studios worldwide, according to Jafa-Bodden. About five years ago, Choudhury tried to assert copyright claims over the program to stop his series of poses from being used by a studio run by former students. In October of last year, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that yoga poses, including the “Bikram sequence,” are ideas or systems and thus not copyrightable. While Bikram yoga still has plenty of devotees, its popularity has waned as news spread of its founder’s behavior and allegations of sexual assault.

And though he is still considered a spiritual leader by many, Choudhury has been accused of being abusive and threatening and creating a hypersexualized workplace. In addition to his use of crude language, Choudhury repeatedly made sexual gestures to employees and teacher trainees, including licking his fingers and simulating intercourse, Jafa-Bodden alleged in her complaint.

At trial in January, Choudhury called accusations of sexual harassment “lies,” and denied ever using vulgar or abusive language against Jafa-Bodden or anyone at his office or yoga college. He maintained that Jafa-Bodden was let go in 2013, when it was revealed she was not licensed to practice law in California. At trial, Jafa-Bodden — who is now licensed — said Choudhury knew she was studying to take the bar and that her job duties didn’t require her to be licensed in the state.

Jafa-Bodden’s other trial attorney, Mark Quigley of Greene Broillet & Wheeler LLP, told Law360 that when Jafa-Bodden first told him about how Choudhury conducted himself in the workplace, he was dumbfounded.

“It was hard to believe that somebody behaved this way in the 21st century as an employer doing the things that she said he was doing. I’ve been practicing employment law for a long time, and as the years have gone by, employers have become educated by their lawyers with respect to what they can and cannot do,” Quigley said. “But Bikram hadn’t learned that lesson.”

Among her allegations, Jafa-Bodden said Choudhury forced her to meet with him in his hotel room at night while female staffers massaged him, and on one occasion, insisted she join him in his bed during a meeting, which she refused to do. At trial, Choudhury issued his routine response to questions about alleged abuse.

“Lies,” he said.

During closing statements, one of Choudhury’s trial attorneys, Robert Tafoya of Tafoya & Garcia LLP, told jurors that Jafa-Bodden’s counsel tried to make the request “seem like it was some weird sexual act.”

“He was on the phone, he gestured to her to sit on the bed, she went to the table,” Tafoya said. “That’s not sexual harassment, that’s a business meeting.”

Throughout the trial, Choudhury’s attorneys told jurors that Jafa-Bodden was trying to make their bombastic client seem like a monster, and that the case was based on exaggerations. At the punitive damages stage of the trial, Tafoya told jurors that Jafa-Bodden suffered no physical harm, just “bad” words.

“Inappropriate, but not as bad as taking someone and putting them up against a wall and hurting them physically,” Choudhury’s attorney said.

Jafa-Bodden is not the only attorney who worked for Choudhury who later took him to court. Petra Starke, a former White House lawyer who came on board with Bikram yoga shortly before Jafa-Bodden was fired, later filed her own wrongful termination suit. Called to the witness stand during Jafa-Bodden’s trial, Starke said her own experience working for Choudhury was “crazy, like some kind of movie,” including seeing a teacher give him oral sex in a limo.

Choudhury’s attorney, Lucien A. Schmit III of Albright Yee & Schmit LLP, told jurors the woman in the limo was resting her head under a heavy coat in Choudhury’s lap because of the late hour of the drive and nobody knew “what was going on under the ski jacket.”

Like Jafa-Bodden, Starke also came under fire from Choudhury for investigating the numerous sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations women had filed against the yoga guru. Three of those cases are currently pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. The women — Sarah Baughn, Jill Lawler and Larissa Anderson — all say Choudhury used his position of authority to manipulate them and eventually sexually assault them. Lawler says she was raped. Anderson and Baughn’s cases are scheduled for trial in 2017. Choudhury has denied the allegations.

There’s also a case pending against Choudhury from a former Bikram yoga training college employee, Sharon Clerkin, claiming she was fired for getting pregnant. During a recent court hearing for that case in November, Choudhury’s attorney in that case, Simon Langer, told the court that his India-born client could not be deposed in person because he “has no intention” of returning from India to the U.S. Langer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday.

The attorney for the plaintiffs in the sexual assault cases, Carney Shegerian of Shegerian & Associates Inc., told Law360 that while Jafa-Bodden’s lawsuit “shined a light” on Choudhury’s character, it may have also hurt his client’s chances at getting justice in their cases.

The attorney for the sexual assault cases, Carney Shegerian of Shegerian & Associates Inc., said while Jafa-Bodden’s lawsuit “shined a light” on Choudhury’s character, it may have also hurt his client’s chances at getting justice in their cases.

“Ultimately, help or hurt, it probably hurt us,” said Shegerian, speculating that Choudhury could be hit even harder by a jury if he lost a sexual assault case since Jafa-Bodden’s claims were “pretty weak as far as anything that’s over-the-top horrible.”

“But for him to have lost that trial, I think it’s given him the indication internally that he’s got to get out of dodge to save himself," said Shegerian, an employment attorney who frequently wins seven-figure verdicts for his clients.

Refusing To Settle

Minnard said she took on the case against Choudhury determined to take it to trial, even making Jafa-Bodden commit to staying with the litigation to verdict, and believes other plaintiffs were now in a better position to get favorable outcomes and settlements.

“I said, ‘I can’t represent you unless you’re willing to take him to verdict. This is not a case that can settle, because people need to know and the only way they’re going to know is if we take him to verdict,’” Minnard said.

The fact that the woman accusing Choudhury of sexual harassment was his own legal adviser probably bolstered the case against the famed yogi, Quigley said.

“As an attorney and a very educated attorney and very well-spoken, it made her more believable,” said Quigley, who has focused his practice over the decades on unlawful employment practices and employee whistleblower cases. “She knew when she saw and when she heard it what was right and what was wrong, and that something needed to be done. And she did it, telling Bikram she just couldn’t do this to people. And then he started doing it to her.”

Minnard’s confidence in taking on Jafa-Bodden’s case may have come from her experience from a previous client, a lesser-known litigant against Choudhury. Pandhora Williams, a singer and yoga practitioner, sued Choudhury in 2012, after he allegedly called her a “black bitch” and kicked her out of his $11,000 teacher training course two years prior. Williams, who had sought a refund, walked away with a $2.5 million settlement on the eve of trial, Minnard said.

Choudhury, who had already cycled through numerous attorneys, had sought a delay of that trial but the judge refused, Minnard said. During a last-ditch settlement conference called by his current counsel, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge mediating the talks gave the O'Melveny & Myers LLP attorneys a word of advice: putting the brash Choudhury on the witness stand would not be in the defendant’s best interest.

“The judge said, ‘If you put that man on the stand, it will be malpractice,’” Minnard recalls. “Never a truer phrase was spoken. ... The insurance carrier said, ‘We’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ And we settled for $2.5 million.”

Choudhury’s former attorneys with O'Melveny & Myers did not respond to Law360’s requests for comment or confirmation of Minnard’s recollection of the judge’s statement. Court documents do not indicate the value of any settlement, only that the case was dismissed.

Celebrities usually go into a case with an advantage since jurors are often intrigued and “infatuated” by fame, Quigley said. That reality hit him hard during opening statements when the defense lawyers described Choudhury as a victim and Jafa-Bodden as someone “just looking for the quick money grab” because of his wealth and notoriety, according to Quigley. But the perception was turned on its head, he said, after “the jury got a flavor” of Choudhury.

Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP entertainment partner James Sammataro, who is not involved in the litigation, said that while a celebrity’s cult of personality and ease in front of the public can often “wow” a starstruck jury, Choudhury’s unpredictable temper and unorthodox manner worked against him in prior cases — including the unsuccessful attempt to copyright his yoga poses sequence — and press interviews.

Recently, Choudhury told an HBO interviewer that he doesn’t need to force himself on women because “famous, beautiful, rich women” line up for him and “people spend $1 million for one drop of my sperm.” After the correspondent pressed him on the sexual assault allegations, he called her “trash” and walked away from the camera.

Choudhury and his lawyers, Linda Miller Savitt and Linda B. Hurevitz of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt LLP, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Jafa-Bodden remains in Los Angeles and attends every post-judgment proceeding. She is unemployed, living off loans from family and friends, she said, unable to find work since bringing the suit.

But she doesn’t regret taking her case to court.

“Going up against someone so rich and so powerful ... I think it actually took me someone like me, with a legal background, to stand up to him,” Jafa-Bodden said. “I felt vindicated.”

Bonnie Eslinger is a court reporter in Los Angeles for Law360. Follow her on Twitter.

No comments: