11:18, May 26 258 0 law.com

2017-05-26 11:18:04
Bikram Yoga Founder Faces Arrest Warrant Over Fight to Recover Damages

 

As of Wednesday, there is a warrant out for the arrest of Bikram Yoga founder Bikram Choudhury who has failed to pay the more than $7 million in damages owed to the global yoga business’ former legal adviser.

Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden won the multimillion-dollar verdict in January 2016 after a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury ruled that Choudhury was liable for gender discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual harassment. She’s been fighting tirelessly for the past 16 months to collect the punitive and compensatory damages totaling $7.3 million but Choudhury has allegedly transferred all of his assets to family members and fled to Thailand and then Mexico, according to Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys.

“Knowing Bikram as well as I do and having worked in-house for him, I didn’t think collection was going to be easy … but I don’t think any of us could foresee all of the steps he’s taken [to avoid paying],” Jafa-Bodden told Corporate Counsel in an interview Thursday.

Jafa-Bodden said the last place Choudhury was known to be was in Acapulco, Mexico, leading a training session for yoga teachers. That’s where he was served papers earlier this month on behalf of Jafa-Bodden to provide documentation to support the need to issue a warrant.

“It’s extremely concerning to me that he is still able to have access to so many young women, particularly given his past treatment of them and his refusal to stop mistreating and abusing them,” Jafa-Bodden said.

Jafa-Bodden has been engaged in a legal battle with the yoga guru since 2013 when she filed suit, alleging that she was wrongfully terminated for investigating claims against the company founder made by women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment. Jafa-Bodden herself alleged she was sexually harassed by her employer.

Choudhury denied those claims in his Superior Court trial last year. Calls and emails to his attorneys and a message to the company Thursday went unreturned.

Despite the chaotic road to collecting damages over more than a year, Jafa-Bodden views this week’s issuance of a warrant for Choudhury’s arrest as a victory.

“A bench warrant being issued gives me comfort the administration of justice is taken very seriously and the court will help a woman collect [what is owed in damages],” Jafa-Bodden said.

Last year’s verdict, she said, should be encouraging for employees who are hesitant to report wrongdoing by their superiors.

In court, Choudhury denied the claims that he sexually assaulted women and wrongfully terminated Jafa-Bodden. He blamed her termination on the fact she was unlicensed to practice law in the state of California. Jafa-Bodden is licensed to practice law in India—where she first met Choudhury and received an offer in 2011 to move to the United States to work as the head of legal and international affairs for his global chain of more than 650 yoga studios.

She proved in court that Choudhury was in fact aware upon her hiring that Jafa-Bodden was not a licensed attorney in the United States. One of her attorneys, Carla Minnard, clarified in an interview Thursday that Jafa-Bodden had acted as an adviser while working for Choudhury, so she could do the job without being licensed in California.

“Just like many general counsel, she was acting as a liaison between the business and outside counsel. And she would advise generally on legal strategies,” Minnard said.

Although attorney-client privilege was reportedly never raised as an issue by Choudhury’s attorneys throughout the case, Minnard explained that Jafa-Bodden’s lawsuit could be brought because her claims were based on conversations that would never be considered privileged legal advice—even if Jafa-Bodden had been acting as an attorney at Bikram, which she claims she was not.

“It’s not like [Choudhury] was saying these things one-on-one with Micki seeking legal representation or advice,” Minnard said. “He was publicly calling women bitches and whores and c—s.”

Minnard added, “I’ve seen some shocking cases in 25 years but nothing like this.”

Jafa-Bodden said Choudhury believes himself to be “above the law.” He has reportedly made outrageous statements inside and outside of his studios.

Choudhury allegedly proclaimed in front of a class in Germany in the spring of 2013: “I should rape more girls. It’s good for business.” This is according to the testimony of former Bikram teacher recruiter Sharon Clerkin, made in Los Angeles County Superior Court in January 2016. Clerkin filed a separate suit in November 2015 against Choudhury for alleged wrongful termination after she became pregnant.

Choudhury’s bail was set Wednesday at $8 million—the approximate amount now owed to Jafa-Bodden. She was originally owed $7.3 million, but interest has accrued. According to Minnard, no funds were voluntarily given to Jafa-Bodden. Minnard said her team had to “sweep” Choudhury’s bank accounts last year shortly after the verdict was given and they were only able to access less than $125,000.

In the months that followed, Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys have been forced to appear in court at least a dozen times, according to Aaron Osten, with Greene Broillet & Wheeler, who is representing Jafa-Bodden, along with Mark Quigley at his firm.

And in an order that came down in December 2016, Jafa-Bodden was assigned a receiver that would transfer to her the income, ownership and intellectual property rights of Choudhury’s businesses. However she has not been able to obtain direct access to the businesses yet, because Choudhury immediately transferred rights to his family members, her lawyers said.

According to Osten, who spoke to Corporate Counsel on Thursday, in the past 16 months, the attorneys have been forced to secure temporary restraining orders to retrieve Choudhury’s assets including vehicles and properties. Osten also claims Choudhury filed for a divorce from his wife and transferred all assets of his businesses to her just days before the verdict in Jafa-Bodden’s case was returned in January 2016.

Choudhury initially claimed he was unable to pay Jafa-Bodden in damages because he was nearly bankrupt, but Osten claims that just weeks ago, Choudhury posted photos on social media of himself wearing a watch that could be worth $2 to $3 million.

“Bikram was running away and hiding his assets and funneling his assets …It was endless for a while but I think we’re near the end now,” Osten said. “Although it was frustrating, it wasn’t something we were going to give up on.”

Once Jafa-Bodden gains ownership of the company, she said she will have the option to operate her former boss’ business, but at this time she thinks she is likely to sell the company.

Jafa-Bodden is hopeful others who witness or experience wrongdoing in their workplace will feel encouraged to voice their concerns to management or law enforcement. This process has “renewed [her] faith in the system,” she said.

“I’m really happy and I think that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for me and my lawyers,” she explained.

As for her advice to in-house counsel who are challenged ethically by their employers, she said it boils down to one question: “What do you do? Do you become complicit or do you speak out? The answer is, ‘You always speak out.’”

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