'Hot yoga' guru Bikram Choudhury insisted on doing business in bed, claims Minakshi Jafa-Bodden
After a two-year-long battle, Minakshi ‘Micki’ Jafa-Bodden, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who had filed a sexual harassment case against hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury in 2013, has finally received justice.
On Tuesday, her ordeal came to a closure after a Los Angeles jury ordered Bikram Choudhury to pay nearly $6.5 million in punitive damages in addition to $924,000 in compensatory damages, after finding he had subjected her to harassment and retaliation.
In 2013, Carla Minnard (right) and her firm helped Minakshi Jafa-Bodden file a lawsuit against Bikram Choudhury (below)
The last three weeks have left Jafa-Bodden exhausted, but she feels vindicated. “My daughter Alix and my brilliant and extraordinary legal team, including Carla Minnard and Mark Quigley, have been my support system,” she told sunday mid-day in an email conversation.
“When I first arrived at Bikram Yoga in 2011, Bikram was quite charming, as is the case with most predators. It wasn’t long until I saw his dark side. He would engage in inappropriate, cruel, harassing and sexist behaviour towards others, including the constant use of abusive and profane language and sexual gestures,” Jafa-Bodden, who joined his company as a legal advisor in 2011, recalled.
Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury instructs his yoga class in a heated room in Beverly Hills, California. Pic/Getty Images
And, when she tried to curb to his rampant conduct, it backfired. “When I advised him not to engage in sexual conduct with his yoga trainees, he became abusive and would tell me that he would do ‘whatever the f*** [he] wanted’. He also subjected me to unwanted sexual advances, such as insisting on holding business meetings in his hotel suite on his bed,” says Jafa-Bodden, who was born in North East India. Jafa-Bodden studied in England before moving to the US.
Micki after the verdict in Downtown LA
In 2013, Jafa-Bodden was terminated from the job after she refused to cover-up his sexual misconduct and refused to condone his “illegal business practices”.
“I proceeded to engage lawyers to bring him to justice. My attempts to get help from Rajashree Choudhury, the vice-president of the company and Bikram’s wife, were met with additional threats and ominous warnings to ‘not rock the boat’ and ‘think of [my] daughter’. It was clear that Rajashree was going to do whatever she could to keep this information and complaints hidden from public view.”
Bikram even had a message delivered to Jafa-Bodden that he would have her deported and then “taken care” of in India. “I was very frightened as I know that Bikram has business contacts in India including a man called Som Mandal,” says Jafa-Bodden. These threats were reported to the authorities in California.
In late 2013, Jafa-Bodden approached Minnard Lawfirm, who recommended that she file a suit that included claims for sexual harassment, hostile work environment, gender discrimination and retaliation. “We knew that it would take an enormous amount of financial resources and perseverance to bring Mr Choudhury to the mat, but Micki hung in there and saw it through. She is an inspiration to us all as lawyers and it was an honour to represent her in this fight for justice,” said Carla Minnard, founder of the firm, whose team filed the case in June 2013.
Witnesses come forward
Finding witnesses, in this case, was not a challenging task. “The challenge was to narrow down witnesses for the trial. Many witnesses were initially fearful of Bikram Choudhury due to his reputation of menacing behaviour. We zeroed down to 70,” said Minnard.
One of their main witnesses was Robert Gilchrest, a former attorney, who confirmed that Micki had been subjected to constant demeaning and harassing conduct, including having to sit in business meetings where Bikram regularly used profanity, and also referred to women in vulgar and offensive terms. “He routinely referred to women as ‘b***h’ and “wh**e”. Gilchrest confirmed that Bikram had confessed that he had raped a young student. ‘What am I to do?’ he asked them,” said Minnard.
The testimony of Petra Starke, a former White House lawyer, was also instrumental in the case. “Starke testified that she observed inappropriate sexual conduct by Bikram Choudhury multiple times, including one instance where he brought a young teacher on a business trip and made her perform oral sex in a limousine while Starke and another associate were in the same car.
“Her home was broken into two days before the trial started. Rajashree Choudhury’s business card was left right in front of her computer monitor Starke testified in court that ‘they wanted to send me a message’,” said Minnard.
Not the truth
Bikram brought his childhood friend and legal advisor, Som Mandal, to testify on his behalf. “The jury described him as ‘lying’ and ‘not truthful’. Mandal claimed that his Indian law firm, Fox Mandal, had employed Micki, not Bikram. During cross-examination, Mandal admitted that he never disclosed the fact that he had an overseas employee to the Indian government or to any tax authorities. Meanwhile, Bikram testified that he received an ‘adjustment’ on his invoices from Mandal, but could not produce any documents in support of that alleged claim. Based on Bikram Choudhury’s testimony, Mandal appears to have received substantial revenue and income, none reported to any taxing authority either in the US or India. It is believed that these matters are under investigation,” said Minnard.
The jury found him to be lying on all counts. “By the end of the trial, the jury was actually laughing at Bikram when he testified about being poor and having no income,” said Minnard.
So, are there chances of the yoga guru losing his licence? “That will be left to the authorities. The case can still be charged by the District Attorney at any point — they have simply decided not to move forward at this time,” explained Minnard.
A new beginning
Today, Jafa-Bodden is ready to move on. “Following the verdict, one of my jurors hugged me and said that she considered me to be ‘a warrior for women’. Once I have recovered from this ordeal I intend to be of service to the working women of Los Angeles,” she signed off.