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Sujit Choudhry has stepped down as dean but will remain a professor at the University of California following a sexual harassment lawsuit filed Wednesday. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Sujit Choudhry has stepped down as dean but will remain a professor at the University of California following a sexual harassment lawsuit filed Wednesday. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Berkeley law school dean steps down amid sexual harassment suit Add to ...

The Canadian dean of one of the top law schools in the United States has stepped down after his executive assistant filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, accusing him of unwanted hugs and kisses on the cheek and head, multiple times each day.

Sujit Choudhry, a former University of Toronto law professor and Rhodes Scholar who is considered a top-notch constitutional mind, is taking an indefinite leave of absence as dean of the University of California, Berkeley, law school, and will fill the role of professor, the school announced on Wednesday – one day after Tyann Sorrell, a 41-year-old mother of five, filed a lawsuit in a California court in which she also accused the law school of retaliating against her for making the complaint.

Berkeley also made public a redacted version of an internal investigation report that upheld the sexual harassment complaint against him. In the investigative report, Mr. Choudhry admitted to the hugs and kisses (though not to doing them daily), but said he had no sexual intent and was thanking her for her work. The investigation report said no sexual intent is needed under the university’s policy for a sexual harassment finding. The school had initially docked Mr. Choudhry 10 per cent of his salary as dean and obliged him to write a letter of apology to Ms. Sorrell.

Berkeley’s heightened attention to Mr. Choudhry, in the face of Ms. Sorrell’s high-profile lawsuit, comes as universities in Canada and the United States are under fire over their policies for investigating and deterring sexual harassment and assault.

Mr. Choudhry, who earned his master’s in law from Harvard University and went on to receive a Trudeau Fellowship worth $225,000, as well as to consult on constitutional transitions in countries such as Jordan, Libya and Egypt, became dean in July, 2014.

Two months later, according to Ms. Sorrell, the harassment began and continued until March 19, 2015, when she wrote a six-page complaint directly to Mr. Choudhry; she later forwarded that e-mail to senior Berkeley staff. She had complained informally to supervisors before then, but they did nothing, she alleged. (She said the school raised her salary from $66,000 U.S. to $75,000 one week after she first complained informally.)

“Choudhry’s kissing and hugging … was a near daily occurrence,” the lawsuit, which has not been proved in court, alleges.

His conduct made Ms. Sorrell “feel disgusted, humiliated, exposed and dirty. She wondered what she had done to make him think it was o.k. for him to touch her. 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.”

She alleges Berkeley law school retaliated against her by failing to place either her or Mr. Choudhry on paid leave. (After the complaint was upheld, the school did put her on paid leave, according to its public statement.)

Mr. Choudhry said in a statement on Wednesday night that he will fight Ms. Sorrell’s allegations in court and that he is taking a leave of absence as dean so the lawsuit does not become a distraction for the law school.

“The dean of one of the most prestigious law schools in the United States should be the very last person who commits sexual harassment,” John Winer, one of Ms. Sorrell’s lawyers, told The Globe and Mail.

“If somebody who understands the law, knows the law, teaches the law, can’t manage to not sexually harass his employee, who can?”

He said Mr. Choudhry should have been terminated after the law school’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination upheld Ms. Sorrell’s complaint.

Berkeley issued a statement from Claude Steele, its executive vice-chancellor and provost, saying that Mr. Choudhry’s behaviour had “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.” He said he believed “a combination of disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behaviour and formal training would be an appropriate and effective response, and would produce the necessary changes in his behaviour.”

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