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Court Won’t Touch Berkeley Disciplinary Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge refused to suspend disciplinary proceedings against former UC Berkeley law school dean Sujit Choudhry over his former assistant's claims he sexually harassed her.

"Regardless of how history may judge the manner in which the university has handled this case, federal intervention at this stage is not warranted," U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg wrote in his 14-page order Wednesday. "The UC disciplinary process is an ongoing state judicial proceeding that implicates important state interests and offers adequate opportunities for Choudhry to raise his constitutional challenges."

The ruling comes only two days after a hearing on Choudhry's motion for a preliminary injunction, in which Seeborg hinted that the federal court should stay out of the matter.

"We are very pleased that the judge recognized it would be improper for a federal court to interfere in the University's pending proceeding with regard to Professor Choudhry, in which he will have a full opportunity to address the charges against him," University spokesperson Richard Vazquez said in an email.

Choudhry sued the UC Regents in September for violation of his constitutional rights and racial discrimination after it launched a second disciplinary proceeding against him for violating the Faculty Code of Conduct by hugging his former assistant Tyann Sorrell, kissing her on the cheek and making her feel uncomfortable.

Choudhry claims the second proceeding was spurred by public outrage that the school wasn't disciplining its professors harshly enough for sexual harassment, and by the negative publicity from Sorrell's lawsuit against the school for not taking her sexual harassment complaints seriously.

Choudhry had already been disciplined in 2015 after an initial investigation found that Choudhry violated the sexual harassment provisions of the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence. Then-Executive Vice Chancellor Claude Steele reduced Choudhry's salary by 10 percent, required Choudhry to apologize to Sorrell and attend sexual harassment training, and told him he could be subjected to further discipline if he violated the university's policy again.

With that, Choudhry said he thought the matter was settled. But after Sorrell filed her lawsuit, Choudhry claimed, the university went after him a second time. Choudhry offered to resign as dean, and Steele accepted.

But the school also filed new disciplinary charges against Choudhry for the same conduct. This time, Choudhry faces the loss of his tenured faculty job, though the school currently isn't allowing him to teach.

His lawsuit claims the university is trying to attract favorable publicity by making him its fall guy, even as it allows white professors who have been accused of worse conduct to keep their jobs.

The UC Regents argued that Seeborg should abstain from ruling on the matter under Younger v. Harris, a Supreme Court ruling that says barring exceptional circumstances, federal courts cannot enjoin pending state criminal proceedings.

Seeborg agreed, noting Choudhry's discipline case was tantamount to a quasi-criminal proceeding, and that it met three other factors warranting his abstention: the proceedings are judicial in nature, implicate important state interests, and provide an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges.

Seeborg also rebuffed Choudhry's argument that bad faith and bias, which can sometimes preclude a Younger abstention, would apply to his case.

"Choudhry provides no specific or actual proof of bias on the part of any person responsible for adjudicating his case, nor could he because those people have not yet even been selected. Moreover, the Academic Senate procedures specifically provide for recusal of any committee member who cannot fairly review his case," Seeborg wrote. "While Choudhry has provided some allegations of potential bias, none overcomes the presumption of honesty or suggests that the UC began its proceedings solely to harass him. His allegations of bias are insufficient to justify interruption of the UC proceedings."

Choudhry's attorney William Taylor said in an email that he is considering his next move.

"We obviously disagree with the ruling and will make decisions shortly about the next steps to take in protecting his rights," Taylor said. "It is noteworthy, of course, that Judge Seeborg did not address the merits of the claims."

Taylor is with Zuckerman Spaeder out of Washington, D.C.

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