UC Berkeley Law School Dean Put on ‘Indefinite Leave of Absence' After Ex-Assistant Files Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

The dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law will be taking an "indefinite leave of absence" from his position after being sued for sexual harassment by his former executive assistant, who alleges he made inappropriate advances toward her for nearly eight months, starting in 2014.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court against Sujit Choudhry and the University of California Board of Regents, court documents show. Attorneys for the plaintiff, Tyann Sorrell, are suing for sexual harassment, failure to prevent harassment, retaliation, infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery and more.

In a statement released Wednesday, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele said Choudhry will be placed on a leave of absence, "stepping down to his faculty position and salary."

"A thorough investigation of this case found that Dean Choudhry’s behavior in this situation violated policy, 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," Steele wrote.

Claim: Harassment Began With 'Bear Hugs'

Sorrell, a 41-year-old mother of five from Oakland, was hired as an executive assistant in June 2012, at which time Christopher Edley was dean of the Berkeley Law School. Under Edley, Sorrell was a "productive, happy and healthy employee," according to the lawsuit.

That changed, however, when Choudhry took over in July 2014, her attorneys allege.

The lawsuit says that the harassment, which lasted until March 2015, began with "bear hugs," kisses and Choudhry pressing Sorrell’s body against his own.

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."

But Choudhry soon began to bend down and kiss Sorrell’s cheek while she sat at her desk, according to court documents. At other times, he allegedly hugged and kissed her in public and in the company of other staff members.

"Choudhry’s kissing and hugging Plaintiff was a near daily occurrence," the lawsuit says, making her "feel disgusted, humiliated, exposed and dirty. She wondered what she had done to make him think it was OK for him to touch her."

Sorrell, who said she has previously suffered from domestic and sexual abuse, held her tongue for awhile, afraid of losing her job – one that her family depended on.

Lawsuit Alleges Failure to Prevent Sexual Misconduct

In September 2014, however, Sorrell told Chief of Staff and Assistant Dean Marilyn Byrne that Choudhry’s "constant kisses, hugs and touching made her uncomfortable." She reiterated her complaint in January 2015, the lawsuit alleges, but Byrne didn’t communicate the issue to human resources or other school leaders.

Meanwhile, Choudhry’s behavior became more aggressive and "occurred multiple times per day," documents allege. Sorrell says he massaged her shoulders and arms, kissed her forehead, and once even placed her hands on his waist, rubbed her hands and then kissed her cheek.

The lawsuit states: "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 Plaintiff’s lips."

Choudhry’s conduct made Sorrell "anxious and depressed," she developed insomnia, suffered from "hair loss," "dreaded coming to work," and began seeking therapy, according to the lawsuit.

In February, Sorrell informed the law school’s new Assistant Dean, Areca Smit, that she "was tired of Choudhry touching and kissing her," according to the lawsuit. Smit described having the same experience, and said that Choudhry’s behavior had also affected Georgia Giatras, the law school’s senior assistant dean and chief operating officer.

Giatras promised to talk to Choudhry while Smit told Sorrell that she would get a raise, starting March 1.

Although Sorrell "welcomed the increase in pay, she wondered if it was meant to pacify her," the lawsuit states.

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Attorneys: HR Director Suggested Plaintiff 'Tough It Out'

Meanwhile, Choudhry continued to harass her, Sorrell claimed.

By March 2015, Sorrell said she had "had enough." Tired of waiting for "her superiors" to act on her behalf while her health worsened, she sent a six-page email to Choudhry, and described feeling "violated and humiliated." Court documents show that Sorrell also forwarded the email to Smit and human resources, according to court documents.

Sorrell’s complaint was reported to UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, but she was forced to use "hard-earned" sick days and vacation time while the school try to find a "remedy for something that Dean Choudhry’s fault while Choudhry remained in his position undisturbed," the lawsuit shows.

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

The official investigation found in July 2015 that Choudhry had "violated" the university’s sexual harassment and violence policy, according to court documents. 

"During the investigation, Dean Choudhry admitted to hugging, kissing, [massaging] and/or caressing" Sorrell numerous times a week, according to the documents. "He also admitted to hugging and kissing other female employees," they state.

Smit and Giatras also copped to knowing about Sorrell’s harassment complaints, but never talking to Choudhry as they promised, the lawsuit states.

UC Berkeley Report: Dean 'Gossips and Vents'

The investigation report 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. 

In response, university officials decided to cut Choudhry’s salary by 10 percent for one year. He was also ordered to write a letter of apology to Sorrell. According to the lawsuit, Sorrell, who found herself on leave and searching for another job, said she "tried in vain to determine the reasoning" behind the discipline meted out.

In October, Steele told Sorrell 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," according to the lawsuit.

Steele handed Sorrell a single-page letter of apology penned by Chaudhry, who remained Berkeley Law School’s dean until Wednesday. The lawsuit states that Sorrell left the meeting "hurt and demoralized."

Among other demands, the plaintiff is seeking punitive damages in an "amount sufficient to punish and make an example out of all individual defendants."

Steele: 'We All Share the Goal of Eliminating of Sexual Harassment'

On Wednesday, Steele deemed "disciplinary actions," counseling, sexual harassment prevention training and monitoring an "appropriate and effective response" to Choudhry's behavior. They will "produce the necessary changes in his behavior," he said. 

Steele continued: "At the same time, I granted [Tyann Sorrell] a fully paid administrative leave — which she is still on — and once she felt ready to return to the workplace, we supported her search to find a position on campus that meets her interests and needs."

This is not the UC Berkeley brass’s first brush with sexual misconduct allegations. The Daily Californian reports that in 2002, then-dean John Dwyer resigned amid accusations of sexually harassing a former law student.

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.

"I know we all share the goal of eliminating of sexual harassment and all forms of discriminatory behavior at UC Berkeley," Steele said Wednesday. "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."

Before coming on board as the Berkeley law school's 12th dean, Choudhry taught at New York University, and served as associate dean and Scholl Professor of Law at the University of Toronto. He is a Rhodes Scholar, holds law degrees from Oxford and Harvard universities, is a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster, and has served as a consultant to the World Bank Institute, according to an announcement when he was hired.

Choudhry has yet to respond to a request for comment and the University of California Board of Regents' spokeswoman directed NBC Bay Area back to the University of California, Berkeley. 

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