(CN) – A federal judge will hear rape-related claims brought against the charismatic leader of Dahnak, an alleged “totalistic, high-demand cult,” despite the defendant’s claim that U.S. courts lack personal jurisdiction over him.
Dahnak was founded by Seung Heun Lee in Korea in 1980, and he later expanded it to the United States by opening several centers purporting to teach Dahn Yoga, a practice blending physical and meditative techniques.
Plaintiff Jessica Harrelson, joined a Dahn Yoga club while attending the University of Massachusetts in 2003, but as she became more involved in the group, it exploited her sense of belonging to the tune of “isolation from the outside world, authoritarian dominion, extreme and constant activity, excessive exercise and overwork,” the complaint said.
In 2004, Harrelson’s handlers persuaded her to drop out of college to focus on her Master training full-time.
But Harrelson’s complaint alleges that Dahn Yoga is “designed and intended to recruit and indoctrinate people into the Dahn organization, where they are unknowingly subjected to an intensive program of psychological manipulation.”
Soon, the opinion states, “she was required to perform as many as 3,000 bows daily beginning at 5 a.m., run shoeless over gravel, hold a push-up posture for twenty to thirty minutes, crawl across the floor on her forearms and elbows, drink toilet water, and lick and kiss the feet of other trainees.”
Harrelson eventually moved to Korea full-time, where Lee told her he considered her a daughter. But in October 2006, he forced her to have sex with him in his apartment.
Though she was unable to resist Lee’s advances due to his psychological dominance of her, Harrelson resigned as a Dahn Master the following morning.
The abuse did not end there, as Lee’s cohorts began a campaign first to convince Harrelson that there was nothing wrong with what had happened, and eventually accusing her of treason to Dahnak. She eventually began to suffer from panic attacks, depression, and self-mutilation.
Two years after the attack, Harrelson had finally saved enough money to leave Korea and brought suit against Lee for sexual abuse and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Lee moved to dismiss the claim for lack of personal jurisdiction, but U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns rejected the Dahnak leader’s motion.
Stearns began by noting the difficult procedural hurdle facing Harrelson: “Harrelson’s claim of personal jurisdiction is based less on any direct act of Lee in Massachusetts than it is on his role as the pervasively dominant principal of the Dahn Yoga network. This theory depends on a piercing of the corporate form, an entity of which Massachusetts law is especially protective.”
Nonetheless, the court found that “Harrelson has pled sufficient plausible facts to support a piercing of the corporate veil,” because the complaint alleges that the corporations in question were merely Lee’s alter egos, operated by fanatical disciples subject to Lee’s absolute control.
Stearns went on to determine that Lee had certainly had sufficient contacts with Massachusetts to warrant the exercise of jurisdiction.
Dahnak opened eleven centers in Massachusetts, each of which grossed roughly $20,000 to $30,000 in monthly fees, and engaged in extensive business and recruitment activities in the state.
Also, according to the court, “given the ease with which Lee travels in supervising his worldwide business empire, the burden imposed by requiring him to appear in this forum is de minimis.”
Finally, Stearns ruled that Harrelson’s decision to file suit in Arizona as well does not mandate the court to dismiss her claim on “first-filed” principles.
“Massachusetts has a substantial interest in protecting its citizens from allegedly predatory cults who use the Commonwealth’s college campuses as recruiting stations,” Stearns noted.