LOS ANGELES (CN) – An attorney for “hot yoga” guru Bikram Choudhury on Wednesday asked a California appeals court to reject a legal motion that would end his bid to overturn a $7 million judgment because he has a warrant out for his arrest.
As the multimillionaire founder of a form of “hot” yoga practiced in sweltering 104-degree heat, Bikram once attracted the rich and famous to test themselves during grueling 90-minute sessions. Lately, however, his legal troubles have overshadowed his brand name and caused lasting damage to his global yoga empire.
A little over four years ago, Choudhury’s legal adviser Minakshi Jafa-Bodden sued him for sexual harassment, and secured a judgment of more than $7 million in 2016.
In May, the Associated Press reported that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Edward Moreton had issued a warrant for Choudhury’s arrest after defied court orders related to the judgment, and set bail at $8 million. Authorities believe Choudhury hid his assets, including a fleet of cars, and left the United States for Mexico, according to ABC News.
In her lawsuit, Jafa-Bodden claimed Choudhury created a “hyper-sexualized, offensive and degrading environment for women.” The British legal advisor said she was banished from his inner circle, then forced to resign after she refused to cover up rape allegations.
Choudhury appealed the judgment. But after he fled the country, Jafa-Bodden filed a motion to dismiss the appeal based on the so-called “disentitlement doctrine” which bars fugitives from seeking relief in a court system they are evading.
On Wednesday, Choudhury’s lawyer Nick Pujji asked California’s Second Appellate District to dismiss the motion, based in part on the argument that Choudhury’s due process rights were violated because attempts to serve him papers in Mexico and Thailand were ineffective.
The Dentons partner said the trial court’s orders, which included restraints on the guru’s fleet of luxury cars and intellectual property related to his yoga empire, could be “deemed void” because his client had was not personally served.
Pujji said “thugs” had been sent down to Mexico and had surprised the guru at a hotel in Acapulco with court papers.
He described his client as understandably “fearful” and “distrustful” of the legal system after Jafa-Bodden’s $7 million judgment, which he described more than once as a “benign” dispute.
“He has completely left the United States out of fear,” Pujji told the court.
Jafa-Bodden’s attorney Carla Minnard said Choudhury should not be allowed to defy the trial court’s orders just because his case was on appeal, and disputed the notion that he was somehow naive.
“Mr. Choudhury is very well-versed, contrary to the suggestion that he is fearful and confused about the legal system,” the Minnard Bosch partner told the panel.
Choudhury had openly disregarded orders restraining the transfer of his fleet of cars and intellectual property. Six days after the court’s order he had transferred IP, including a number trademarks, to his daughter, she said. Within 30 days he had moved the cars. After the hearing, Minnard said more than 20 cars had been moved to Florida and others were dispersed across the country.
She added there is ample evidence to support service, including a video that showed him being served with legal papers compelling him to appear in the United States for deposition, during a September 2016 teacher-training event in Thailand.
“It was clear that he was served and he said, ‘Those legal papers are my toilet paper.’ So he acknowledges the documents,” Minnard said outside the courtroom.
The appellate panel took the case under submission. After the hearing, Pujji declined to comment to reporters or reveal the whereabouts of his client.
Minnard’s co-counsel Mark Quigley said he’s not sure where Choudhury is located, but said he had seen an unsigned declaration stating that the yoga guru is in India.
Jafa-Bodden sat in the back of the courtroom during proceedings. Outside, she accused Choudhury of “gaming the system” and called him a “dangerous” man.
“I don’t think there’s any woman out there who is safe as long as Bikram is on the loose, whether in a Bikram studio, whether in India, Thailand, Mexico, wherever. He is continuing to operate in the shadows,” she said. “This isn’t poor Bikram, the victim here having to leave his home and family. So frankly, I was astonished at the gall of the defendants.”
Choudhury led his classes looking like an emaciated sumo wrestler, dressed in black Speedos with his hair in a topknot. He opened his first college in India after adapting 26 poses from Hatha Yoga. His yoga franchise became an international phenomenon, attracting millions of devotees and transforming him into a household name.
He has faced multiple lawsuits accusing him of sexually assaulting his students. Court filings describe Choudhury as a racist, anti-Semitic homophobe who preyed on his female students.
In 2013, Sarah Baugh, who had trained to teach at Choudhury’s Los Angeles studio, claimed he had sexually assaulted her. More allegations emerged that year when two former students claimed the guru had raped them.
Three more women came forward with sexual assault claims. Through it all, the instructor maintained his innocence. Pujji said during the hearing that four of six of the cases were resolved without any admission of fault.
In a 2015 interview with CNN, Choudhury said he never sexually assaulted anyone and women came to him for sex.
“Women like me. Women love me,” he said. “So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”
Justices Lee Edmon, Luis Lavin, Kim Dunning and Natalie Stone sat on the court’s panel.