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Heated Jury Hits Hot Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury with $6.4 Million in Punitive Damages

On January 26, 2016, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in federal court against founder of Bikram Yoga, Bikram Choudhury, awarding more than $6.4 million in punitive damages for the sexual harassment, discrimination, and wrongful termination of former legal advisor, Minakashi Jafa-Bodden. Bikram Yoga, popularly described as “hot yoga,” is a particular style of yoga where participants perform twenty-six poses and breathing exercises in a room heated above 100 degrees. This is the first of a series of lawsuits against the famous yoga guru, in which numerous women have accused the founder of sexual harassment and rape.

The case involved a lawsuit by former in-house legal advisor, who alleged Choudhury sexually harassed and wrongfully terminated her from the yoga empire. Choudhury hired plaintiff Jafa-Bodden in March 2011 as an in-house legal advisor for his yoga studios. Plaintiff received her law degree in England and had practiced law in Europe and India before moving to Los Angeles to join Choudhury’s team. During her two-year employment as Choudhury’s legal advisor, plaintiff quickly realized her job would involve handling allegations against Choudhury for the sexual harassment and assault of his yoga students and teacher trainees.

After initiating an investigation of sexual harassment claims, plaintiff claimed to have experienced the same demeaning and abusive behavior from Choudhury. Plaintiff claimed Choudery threatened to have her killed or deported for making complaints about his sexually harassing behavior. After two years of employment, plaintiff was ultimately terminated from her $125,000 a year job in 2013, which meant losing her work visa in the United States. In her suit against Choudhury, plaintiff claimed she was terminated for investigating a rape accusation made against Choudhury and refusing to participate in a cover-up, trying to prevent staff members from forcing women to meet with Choudhury after making complaints of sexual harassment or assault, and refusing to accuse another yoga study of sexual misconduct. She also claimed Choudhury forced her to have meetings at night in his hotel room while female staffers massaged him and urged her to sit on his bed with him, which she denied. Choudhury, on the other hand, maintained that plaintiff was fired when it was revealed she was not licensed to practice law in California. Plaintiff asserted everyone knew she was studying to take the bar and her job duties did not require her to be licensed in the state.

Plaintiff called Petra Stark, a former lawyer in President Barack Obama’s administration, who was also fired by Choudhury, to testify female teacher trainees massaged the 69-year-old guru and combed his hair, adding that meetings with him were held in his bedroom and on his bed. Ms. Stark further testified to witnessing Mr. Choudhury force a 23 year old trainee to give him a massage and later oral sex during a late-evening limousine ride. According to Ms. Stark, she was fired by Choudhury after telling his wife and two other employees about the limo incident. Another witness testified at trial that following the sexual assault allegations, Choudhury declared to a classroom of hundreds of yoga teachers, “Look at how many people are here; I should rape more women, it’s good for business.”

Choudhury’s wife of 30 years testified she had never known Choudhury to be sexually inappropriate with students or staff but knew he used demeaning language during training as part of his “performance.” She admitted it bothered her when her husband called students prostitutes and “bitches” during his teacher trainings but that it was all part of his act and sense of humor. However, a family friend testified Choudhury’s wife complained to him about her husband’s sexual harassment and dalliances with his female students and trainees. On cross-examination, that witness also admitted to having an affair with Mrs. Choudhury.

During the nearly two week trial, Choudhury’s attorney continuously denied all accusations against Choudhury, claiming the lawsuit was full of salacious, overinflated claims that did not show plaintiff had been sexually harassed or fired in retaliation. He admitted Choudhury occasionally uses bad words in the work place and has an outrageous personality, but the sexual harassment claims against plaintiff were fabricated. Choudhury’s attorney stated, “In the end, I really believe she wants you to pay her these millions and millions of dollars so she never has to work again. He has deep pockets, he’s a celebrity.”

Despite Choudhury’s celebrity status, a 12-person jury found in favor of plaintiff on her claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, awarding $924,000 in compensatory damages. After less than two days of deliberation, the California federal jury concluded plaintiff experienced “severe and pervasive” harassment while working for Choudhury, creating a hostile work environment that her employers know about and failed to correct. They also found that her complaints to higher level management about the sexual discrimination contributed to her termination. Her compensatory damages included $237,000 in past lost wages, $187,500 for future lost earnings, $50,000 for mental suffering and emotional distress, and $450,000 in noneconomic damages, including future suffering and emotional distress.

The following day, the jury hit Choudhury and his yoga college with more than $6.4 million in punitive damages, bringing the total award to almost $7.4 million. The jury granted the award despite claims by Choudhury’s attorney the yoga business is nearly bankrupt as a result of the legal cases against his client. In response, plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury what happened to the “deep pockets” Choudhury was claiming a few day prior. Plaintiff’s counsel also pointed out Choudhury refused to provide financial documents showing the profitability of the business. Jurors were shown pictures of Choudhury’s real estate properties and “about 30 to 40” luxury cars, including Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Ferraris.

Jafa-Bodden’s suit is just one of six lawsuits filed by women in California against Choudhury for sexual harassment and rape. Among these lawsuits, one former student is alleging Choudhury raped her at a training seminar.
The case is Minakashi Jafa-Bodden v. Bikram Choudhury et al., case number BC512041, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan Isserman is a graduate of Villanova School of Law. Ms. Isserman’s focus is on general liability, employment, and personal injury litigation. Contact Megan at 858.459.4400 or misserman@tysonmendes.com.

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