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Berkeley Law dean takes leave of absence amid allegations of sexual harassment

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Update 03/10/2016: This article has been updated to reflect new information from campus officials and students, as well as the OPHD investigation report.

The dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law will take an indefinite leave of absence from his position as dean — but will remain a faculty member of the school — amid allegations of sexual harassment.

A confidential campus investigation’s findings in July led the campus to determine that Sujit Choudhry’s behavior violated the university’s sexual harassment policies, according to a statement issued Wednesday by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele.

On Tuesday, Choudhry and the UC Board of Regents were sued by Choudhry’s executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, for sexual harassment over a period of time spanning from September 2014 — after Choudhry took over as dean of the law school — to March 2015. She alleged in the complaint that Choudhry hugged, kissed or caressed her multiple times per week, among other allegations.

“While I disagree with the plaintiff’s claims and allegations, and will defend against them, I am unfortunately unable to comment on the substance of the lawsuit,” Choudhry said in a statement Wednesday, adding that he will continue to cooperate with the university as matters unfold.

Sorrell is suing for eight causes of action, namely sexual harassment, retaliation, failure to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, failure to discharge a mandatory statutory duty and violation of business and professions code.

“(Berkeley Law) really prides itself on social justice and gender equity, and the leader of the law school … should model those values,” said Tam Ma, 2011 law school graduate. “The fact that the university allowed the dean to continue working and to continue to supervise this particular employee really undermines those values.”

In July 2015, the investigation conducted by the campus’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, found that Choudhry “demonstrated a failure to understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on the plaintiff personally and in her employment,” according to Steele’s statement.

Steele said in the statement that he believed a combination of “disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behavior and formal training” would be an appropriate and effective response.

After the investigation, Steele docked Choudhry’s salary as dean by 10 percent for one year. In 2014, Choudhry’s regular pay was $172,917, with his gross pay totaling $472,917. In addition, Steele mandated Choudhry’s participation in counseling at the dean’s own expense and instructed him to issue an apology to Sorrell.

The results of the OPHD investigation were not made public until after the lawsuit against Choudhry was filed.

“This is absolutely something the university and the law school needed to make students aware of and they really failed to do so,” said Tori Porell, a first-year student at the law school. “A lot of people feel betrayed and hurt that they would keep something so important and basically try to sweep it under the rug.”

Investigation findings

On March 19, 2015, Sorrell sent Choudhry a six-page email expressing her objection to his alleged demeaning conduct and unwelcome touching and kissing over the course of more than seven months. The issue was reported to a OPHD Title IX officer on March 24, 2015, and in April 2015, Sorrell contacted the office herself.

“Based upon a preponderance of the evidence, (Choudhry) violated the sexual harassment provisions of the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence,” the investigation report stated.

Sorrellwhose name was redacted in the investigation report said Choudhry began touching, hugging and kissing her in September 2014 once every few days. Sorrell began to feel “smothered” and “encroached upon” when the hugging and kissing began to occur daily, the investigation stated, escalating in February 2015 to multiple times a day.

“Hugs (from friends and family) never made me feel uncomfortable, humiliated, exposed and dirty,” Sorrell wrote in an email quoted by the report. “I have never been hugged so hard by a co-worker or supervisor that I could feel my breast harshly compress into their chest.”Choudhry_225w_web

In May, Choudhry admitted to hugging and kissing Sorrell on multiple occasions, as well as hugging and kissing other female employees, to OPHD investigators. He said, however, that “there was never any sexual intent,” and that the actions were to “say thanks for managing the office,” according to the report.

Under university policy, sexual harassment constitutes conduct that is unwelcome, sexual in nature and affects a person’s employment or work in some way. Sexual intent, however, is not a requirement for behavior to be ruled sexual harassment. Rather, sexual harassment analysis focuses on the nature of the conduct and its impact on the respondent.

According to Sorrell’s email, the investigation found that “(Choudhry’s) conduct caused her a ‘significant amount of stress and anxiety … for a very long time,’ and her health was suffering.”

All university faculty members are required to take an e-course on sexual harassment prevention training. While Choudhry was first assigned the training on Sept. 22, 2014, shortly after he began working as dean, the investigation stated, he did not complete the training. After Sorrell filed the complaint with OPHD and Choudhry was prompted by OPHD investigators, he completed the e-course in April 2015.

In her interview with investigators, Sorrell also alleged that Choudhry used demeaning language toward her, rudely instructing her to do personal errands such as getting him tea and snacks or picking up his dry cleaning. Sorrell said in the report that she felt such errands were not characteristic of her job description as executive assistant, and that his behaviors collectively constitute gender discrimination.

Investigators found that Choudhry did not engage in a similar manner with male colleagues when greeting them or displaying gratitude, instead giving verbal thanks and hellos and patting workers on the back or shoulder. An analysis in the investigation report noted that this discrepancy and other evidence reflects Choudhry’s conduct as objectively unwelcome and sexual.

One witness — who spoke with Sorrell several days before she sent the email — told OPHD investigators that Choudhry felt embarrassed and possibly ashamed.

“His behavior was unconscious, he wasn’t trying to make anyone uncomfortable on purpose,” the witness said in the report. “He felt bad.”

The witness, who described herself as a confidante for Choudhry, said she experienced his occasional affectionate behavior as “familial-like,” the investigation stated.

Sorrell, a former victim of domestic and sexual abuse, started using sick and vacation time and notified OPHD of her situation, according to the complaint. She currently remains on leave.

Choudhry told OPHD investigators that he regrets that he didn’t notice Sorrell’s unhappiness and was “regretful and sorry.”

“(Choudhry) notes he ‘wants to be a good leader and effective, and he would appreciate the opportunity to be better,’” the report stated. “He added that ‘every interaction matters, in particular, (respecting) professional boundaries.’”

The investigation, which concluded in July, was forwarded to the provost’s office for further review required under the Faculty Code of Conduct.

Campus response

After Steele decided to reduce Choudhry’s dean salary and request an apology letter be written to Sorrell, Sorrell met Steele in October 2015, the complaint stated. The lawsuit alleges that Steele told her that he had “seriously considered terminating the Dean,” but had decided not to because “it would ruin the Dean’s career.”

In addition, the lawsuit alleges the UC Board of Regents knew of the probable injurious consequences of Choudhry’s continued employment but failed to take adequate action by allowing him to keep working at the law school and conduct “unlawful, discriminatory harassment.”

Choudhry said in the Wednesday statement that he would take leave of absence “in order to ensure that this lawsuit does not become a distraction for the Law School, the University, and our community, whose interests (he has) always placed above all else.”

Steele stated he also granted Sorrell a fully paid administrative leave — which is ongoing — until she said she felt ready to return to her position. He added that the campus supported her search to find an alternate position on campus.

“I intend to listen carefully to what members of our campus community and others have to suggest when it comes to how we prevent and respond to incidents like these,” Steele said in a statement.

Sorrell could not be reached for comment.

The complaint stated that besides Sorrell, Choudhry subjected other women to unwanted sexual interactions, including the dean’s then-chief of staff, Areca Smit, and Berkeley Law’s senior assistant dean and chief operating officer, Georgia Giatras.

According to the lawsuit, Sorrell is asking for monetary compensation, including damages “sufficient to punish and make an example out of all individual Defendants.” In addition, Sorrell is demanding costs of the suit and attorneys’ fees be paid as well.

“It’s a workplace, and people ought to be able to come to work without fear of being groped,” said UC President Janet Napolitano, regarding allegations against Choudhry, in an interview with the Sacramento Bee editorial board Wednesday. “That seems to me a minimal standard.”

Before coming to UC Berkeley in July 2014, Choudhry was a professor at the New York University School of Law. An expert in comparative constitutional law, he was one of four recipients of the Trudeau Fellowship — the Canadian equivalent of the MacArthur Award — in 2010.

Student concerns

This is not the first time a dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law has been accused of sexual harassment. In 2002, former dean John Dwyer resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed a former law student.

In October 2015, then-astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy resigned from his position after a campus investigation implicated him in a breach of campus sexual harassment policies in June 2015. His resignation followed public uproar over the discovery of allegations of sexual misconduct spanning several years.

About 200 law students gathered Wednesday afternoon at the law school — organized by the Berkeley Law-sponsored Coalition for Diversity student organization — to process the sexual harassment allegations and plan future actions the students will take, Porell said.

Olga Tomchin, a 2013 law school alumna, created a letter with about 40 other graduates Wednesday for Berkeley Law alumni to sign demanding the campus immediately terminate Choudhry and the university initiate an independent investigation into the handling of this and other sexual harassment claims.

The letter, which gained more than 300 signatures in fewer than five hours, will be sent Thursday afternoon to Napolitano, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and members of the UC Board of Regents, among others, Tomchin said in an email.

“(Berkeley Law) is supposed to be an inclusive and welcoming environment with progressive values,” Porell said. “This kind of thing just shows that Berkeley is no different, that this kind of thing can happen anywhere, even in the most purportedly progressive environment.”

This week marks the arrival of Admitted Students Weekend for the law school. In light of the sexual harassment allegations made against Choudhry, Porell said she hopes to make it clear to prospective students that Choudhry’s actions aren’t a reflection of the school and what it stands for.

“If I were a student or a faculty member there, I wouldn’t feel safe working there,” Ma said.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the campus plans to make an announcement soon regarding an interim replacement for the law school dean.

[documentcloud url=”http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2754669-Choudhry-OPHD-Investigation-Report-7-7-15-REDACTED.html”]

Contact Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and Suhauna Hussain at [email protected].

MARCH 11, 2016

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