News » California » Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry on ‘indefinite leave’ after being sued for sexual harassment

Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry on ‘indefinite leave’ after being sued for sexual harassment

Choudhry was making $473,000 as Dean, in 2014.

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The high profile dean of Berkeley Law, at the University of California, Sujit Choudhry, 45, is taking an “indefinite leave of absence” from his position after he was sued for sexual harassment by his former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, who claims he made inappropriate advances toward her, according to officials of the university.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court against Choudhry, who is of Indian American origin, and the University of California Board of Regents, claiming sexual harassment, retaliation and failure to stop it, among other actions. According to court documents, the sexual harassment went on for almost eight months, starting in 2014.

The Berkeley School of Law was ranked No. 8 in the most recent U.S. News & World Report list of best American law schools

Sorrell, the former executive assistant, claims in the lawsuit that from September 2014 to March 2015, Choudhry sexually harassed her — rubbing her shoulders and arms, kissing her cheeks and giving her bear hugs that pressed her body against him, according to court documents, reported The Washington Post.

Sorrell claims that when she told supervisors, they first failed to stop Choudhry, and then tried to retaliate. University Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele said in a statement Wednesday night that Choudhry will be “stepping down to his faculty position and salary” and the school will name an interim dean.

“A thorough investigation of this case found that Dean Choudhry’s behavior in this situation violated policy,” Steele said, “and that he demonstrated a failure to understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on the plaintiff personally and in her employment.

“Based on the findings of the investigation I believed that a combination of disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behavior and formal training would be an appropriate and effective response, and would produce the necessary changes in his behavior,” Steele said.

Choudhry has not yet spoken publicly about the allegations against him. Indeed, Berkeley Law — one of the nation’s top law schools — has a history with sexual harassment allegations against its leaders, reported the Post.

In 2002, the school’s then-dean, John Dwyer, resigned after he was accused of sexually harassing a former law student, according to the Daily Californian. The student newspaper reported at that time that Dwyer had “admitted to having a single consensual encounter with a student two years ago but denied charges of sexual harassment.”

Former astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy resigned in October 2015 after it was discovered that he violated the university’s sexual harassment polices over a number of years, reported NBC Bay Area.

In 2012, Sorrell said she began working in for then-dean Christopher Edley. Choudhry took over the position in July 2014, according to the university. Soon after, Sorrell claims, Choudhry started to initiate sexual contact, reported the Post. Sorrell, a 41-year-old mother of five, claims in the lawsuit that “Choudhry’s kissing and hugging plaintiff was a near daily occurrence.”

“The hugs became tighter and more lingering and the kissing more intimate in that over time Choudhry’s kisses began to land closer and closer” to her mouth, according to the court documents.

“She wondered what she had done to make him think it was OK for him to touch her,” according to the documents. “She was worried about her reputation and what her work colleagues thought of her. At the same time, she worried about upsetting him and possibly losing her job, on which her family depended.”

Sorrell said she is a victim of domestic and sexual abuse and claims in the lawsuit that the unwanted sexual contact made her anxious and depressed — causing her to lose sleep and dread her going to work. She said she suffered “insomnia, hair loss, depression and anxiety” as a result.

By March 2015, Sorrell said she had “had enough” and wrote a six-page email to Choudhry, telling him she felt “violated and humiliated” and forwarded the email to human resources, according to court documents, reported the Post.

It was reported to UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.

Sorrell said she was “scared” to work with Choudhry and couldn’t “tough it out,” as Human Resources Director Sheri Showalter suggested.

According to NBC Bay Area, Sorrell says she didn’t shove Choudhry away because “she was in shock that someone of Dean Choudhry’s stature would even engage in such conduct. [She] hoped that Choudhry would eventually take a hint from the fact that she was not hugging back and stop.”

“During the investigation, Dean Choudhry admitted to hugging, kissing, messaging (sic) and/or caressing” her several times a week, according to the documents. He purportedly said he had grabbed her hands, “putting them on his waist. “He also admitted to hugging and kissing other female employees.”

Many of these claims are also detailed in the investigation report from the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, which found in July 2015 that Choudhry had violated the university’s policy on sexual harassment and violence.

Steele, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost, said Wednesday night that he had cut Choudhry’s salary as dean by 10 percent as well as ordered him apologize to Sorrell and seek counseling at his own expense.

Choudhry’s salary in 2014 was nearly $473,000, according to the Sacramento Bee.

But Sorrell claims in the lawsuit that following those disciplinary actions, the university official told her that he had “seriously considered terminating the dean but that the reason he had decided not to was because it would ruin the dean’s career, that is, destroy his future chances for higher appointment.”

Sorrell said she tried “in vain to determine the reasoning” behind the decision. Steele said he also gave Sorrell paid administrative leave, which she is still on, reported the Post.

The Berkeley investigation report, according to NBC, also shows that Sorrell accused Choudhry of being “rude and demeaning.” He has demanded that she bring him water and snacks, drop off and pick up dry cleaning, fax personal mortgage documents, and heat his tea, prompting Sorrell to tell him, “You know I’m not your maid,” according to the report. Choudhry also “gossips and vents about staff and faculty,” the investigation found.

Choudhry is “an internationally recognized authority on comparative constitutional law and comparative constitutional development,” according to his Berkeley Law biography. He has served as a consultant to the World Bank Institute and is a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster.

Prior to joining Berkeley Law, the biography states, Choudhry, an international authority on comparative constitutional law, was a professor at the NYU School of Law and a faculty chair at the University of Toronto.

“In 2010, he was one of four Canadians to receive the Trudeau Fellowship, the Canadian equivalent of the MacArthur awards,” it states. “Professor Choudhry holds law degrees from Oxford, Toronto and Harvard, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as law clerk to Chief Justice Antonio Lamer of the Supreme Court of Canada.”

In a meeting with The Sacramento Bee editorial board, University of California President Janet Napolitano said that UC deans are normally disciplined at the campus level. But, she added: “How often do you have to say, ‘It’s a workplace’? People ought to be able to come to work without being groped, as a minimal standard.”

The Bee said in an editorial: “A task force, prompted by the Marcy case, has been reviewing sexual harassment policy at the UC; a report is due in April. We hope it makes it clear, to the extent it isn’t already, that “yes means yes” isn’t just for students, and sexual harassment is sexual harassment, even for people with Ph.Ds.”

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