Employment Law

Jury Hammers Yoga Guru with Punitive Damages in Sexual Harassment Case

In a closely-watched case, the founder of the popular Bikram Yoga was found liable for wrongful termination/sexual harassment by his former legal analyst. The jury found unanimously for the Plaintiff in the case, assessing compensatory and punitive damages of more than $7 million. The case illustrates the need for every employer to review their anti-sexual harassment policies and practices.

Thomas Daugherty, Esq.
Thomas E. Daugherty, Esq.

By Thomas E. Daugherty, Esq.

The jury found unanimously for plaintiff Minakshi Jafa-Bodden in her wrongful termination/sexual harassment lawsuit against yoga guru, Bikram Choudhury.  Jafa-Bodden had previously worked for Choudhury as a legal analyst.

Jafa-Bodden alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed her while she worked for him, and retaliated against her when she investigated and then refused to help cover-up an alleged rape of a yoga student. The jury found that Jafa-Bodden had complained to her higher-ups in the yoga organization, that her employers knew of the on-going severe and pervasive harassment that constituted a hostile work environment, and failed to correct the situation.

As a result, the jury awarded $924,500 in compensatory damages, which included past lost wages, future lost earnings, mental suffering and emotional distress and future suffering and emotional distress.  In addition, the jury found that Choudhury acted with malice, oppression and fraud, which allowed Jafa-Bodden to seek punitive damages.

Under California law, the purposes of punitive damages are to punish a wrongdoer for the conduct that harmed the plaintiff and to discourage similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages must be proven through clear and convincing evidence, which is a higher standard of proof that the “more likely than not” preponderance of the evidence standard for most civil liability causes of action.  The jury awarded Jafa-Bodden $6,471,000 in punitive damages, in addition to her compensatory damages award, for a total award of nearly $7.4 million.

In California, employers of fifty or more employees must provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to all supervisory employees, every two years.  Employers are generally liable for harassment by their supervisors.  Additionally, the law requires employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring.  If an employer fails to take such preventive measures, that employer can be held liable for the harassment.  So, it’s always a good time for employers to review their anti-sexual harassment policies and practices, and make sure they comply with the law.