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U.C. Berkeley Law dean on ‘indefinite leave of absence’ after sexual harassment suit

(U.C. Berkeley Law School)
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Officials at the University of California at Berkeley said Wednesday night the dean of their prestigious law school is taking an “indefinite leave of absence” from his position after he was sued for sexual harassment by his former executive assistant, who claims he made inappropriate advances toward her.

The complaint was filed Tuesday against Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry and the University of California Board of Regents, claiming sexual harassment, retaliation and failure to stop it, among other actions.

Tyann 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.

Sorrell claims that when she told supervisors, they first failed to stop Choudhry, and then tried to retaliate.

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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.”

Choudhry has not yet spoken publicly about the allegations against him.

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Indeed, Berkeley Law — one of the nation’s top law schools — has a history with sexual harassment allegations against its leaders.

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.”

“I acknowledge that this reflected a serious error in judgment on my part and was inappropriate,” he had written in an internal memo, according to the newspaper. “I believe I can no longer effectively lead the school.”

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.

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.

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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.

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

“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.

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.

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

It states:

The law school has pioneered curriculums like intellectual property law and technology-related law and offers specialized curricular programs in areas such as Energy and Clean Technology Law and Environmental Law.

In 2002, amid allegations against then-dean Dwyer, the university issued a response, stating that after the former law student filed a complaint, the administration opened a “confidential” investigation.

“Within days conversations were undertaken with the complainant, her attorney, the dean and campus lawyers,” the university said at the time. “In these discussions, her attorney raised additional issues not included in the original complaint, alleging that the campus was not in compliance with federal and state law under Title IX, which addresses sexual harassment and complaint procedures.”

Officials said Dwyer chose to resign, “citing a serious error in judgment.”

In addition, the university said it would review its sexual harassment policies and training techniques.

In response to the Choudhry allegations, Steele, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost, said the goal is to eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination 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,” he said Wednesday night in his statement.

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 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.”

This post has been updated.


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