Janet Napolitano and the University of California Sued for Violating Professor Sujit Choudhry's Rights to Due Process of Law and Equal Protection

In a lawsuit filed today by Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California, Janet Napolitano and the Regents of the University of California were accused of violating UC Berkeley Law Professor and former Dean Sujit Choudhry’s rights to due process of law and equal protection. The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief against the violations of due process and equal protection being committed by Napolitano and the Regents, and the other named defendants.

According to the federal court lawsuit, Napolitano and the Regents of the University of California “are attempting to deprive [Professor Choudhry] of his employment, his salary, his reputation and his career under the pretext of a disciplinary proceeding based upon conduct and allegations which were investigated and resolved with a negotiated agreement on July 31, 2015. In this effort Defendants violate the most basic principles of due process, as well as their own word and the regulations of the University.”

The federal lawsuit begins by detailing the history of efforts by Napolitano and the University of California to manage various sexual harassment allegations: “The University of California . . . has faced widespread criticism for its handling of sexual harassment allegations on its campuses. In the spring of 2016, when the University’s inconsistent response to sexual harassment became the subject of national media attention, University President Janet Napolitano chose to use the case of Sujit Choudhry . . . as a means to try to improve the University’s image as well as her own.”

The lawsuit next compares the case of Professor Choudhry with other cases of sexual harassment that were managed by Napolitano and the University of California: “In March, 2015, Ms. Tyann Sorrell, then-Dean Choudhry’s executive assistant, complained that she was uncomfortable with certain of his conduct toward her. Specifically, he publicly hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, in gestures of greeting and support, which she recognized as being intended as ‘a warm and friendly greeting.’ He apologized. Remarkably, unlike the string of cases involving Caucasian faculty and administrators for which the University meted out almost no punishment – despite findings of pervasive, predatory sexual misconduct – no one has ever suggested that Professor Choudhry’s conduct was sexually motivated or predatory.”

The federal lawsuit explains how the complaint against Professor Choudhry was resolved by the University: “In July 2015, Professor Choudhry and the University resolved Ms. Sorrell’s complaint by agreeing to a negotiated resolution under the University’s governing rules (“the Settlement”). The Settlement included a 10 percent cut in Professor Choudhry’s salary; training and professional coaching at Professor Choudhry’s expense; a written apology to Ms. Sorrell; and monitoring by the University’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (“OPHD”). The Settlement was approved by the entire leadership of the University of California, Berkeley . . . . In accepting the Settlement, Professor Choudhry gave up the rights to challenge factual findings he contested, and continues to contest, and to insist on a full hearing under the disciplinary rules. Professor Choudhry complied with his obligations under the agreement and continued to serve as Dean of Berkeley Law.”

The events that occurred next gave rise to today’s lawsuit: “On March 8, 2016, amid reports that the University had mishandled other cases of serious sexual misconduct, Ms. Sorrell filed a civil suit against the University and Professor Choudhry. In the media firestorm that followed, Napolitano directed that the University start new disciplinary proceedings against Professor Choudhry for the very same conduct for which he had already been punished. That second ‘investigation,’ justified under the pretext that the previous proceeding only involved his ‘administrative’ punishment, is now underway. A new ‘investigative’ report has been submitted … containing new recommended punishment. Despite requests, Professor Choudhry has not been provided a copy of that report.”

In particular, according to the lawsuit, “President Napolitano and the University have made Professor Choudhry a pariah, repeatedly threatening to ‘ban’ him from campus and giving false information about his conduct to the national press. Napolitano falsely accused him publicly of ‘groping’ Ms. Sorrell.”

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that “[a]t the start of this new academic year, the University has now, among other things: (a) refused to assign Professor Choudhry classes, eliminating his ability to perform his duties and maintain eligibility for future merit increases of salary; (b) repeatedly threatened to ban him from its campus; and (c) circulated statements suggesting that students should ‘protect themselves’ given Professor Choudhry’s presence on campus and listing resources including rape crisis and sexual assault organizations and night escort campus services to ensure safety. More recently, President Napolitano has stated that Professor Choudhry will not teach in the spring semester either.”

The lawsuit alleges that “the pretextual proceeding against Professor Choudhry is a direct effort to minimize the University’s gross mismanagement of Ms. Sorrell’s employment and meager response to actual predatory conduct on campus. After reaching the Settlement with Professor Choudhry and Professor Choudhry’s full acceptance of responsibility for making Ms. Sorrell feel uncomfortable, the University deserted Ms. Sorrell, whom it turned down for ten successive jobs elsewhere in the University and who has now sued the University. By targeting Professor Choudhry, who is of South Asian descent and a non-U.S. citizen, the University hopes to deflect attention from its failure to meaningfully punish Caucasian faculty and administrators who were found to have committed appalling sexual misconduct, and from the fact that it deserted Ms. Sorrell.”

According to the lawsuit, “[t]he University has threatened to ‘ban’ Professor Choudhry from campus and seeks to impose the harshest punishment imaginable – loss of tenure – as a second, duplicative punishment on Professor Choudhry while not seeking to impose a second round of discipline, much less a campus ‘ban,’ on Caucasian administrators and faculty members who its investigations found committed hideous sexual acts against students and staff.”

Related people
Media contact

Katie Munroe
Email | 202.778.1871