A Los Angeles woman has filed a lawsuit seeking at least $1 million in damages against Esalen Institute, claiming the Big Sur retreat and its employees violated her civil rights when an instructor repeatedly played a video with racial slurs during a class.
Nicole Evans, who is Black, booked a stay at the retreat from Sept. 5 to 9, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 28 in Monterey County Superior Court. The institute, a popular escape for celebrities and Silicon Valley executives, proclaims to be a meditation sanctuary, but Evans’ lawyers said she experienced “one of the most humiliating and traumatizing experiences of her life.”
Evans attended a meditation class on Sept. 7 led by Lorin Roche, whom the lawsuit identifies as “a faculty member with decades of tenure at the institute.” The suit alleges that Roche played a YouTube video featuring a Black comedian. The attendees were laughing at the routine, but “the room became deafeningly silent” when the comic began using the N-word and saying that the "Irish people were the "n——— of Europe."
The lawsuit alleges that Roche was aware of the routine’s offensive nature and that he looked directly at Evans, the only Black person in attendance, to gauge her reaction. Some attendees also turned to look at Evans, further adding to her fear and humiliation, the suit states.
Roche then allegedly rewound and replayed the offensive part of the video, causing some attendees to groan and walk out of class. Evans was “completely confounded, shocked and overwhelmed with emotion,” according to the lawsuit.
“She felt paralyzed and did not know what to do,” the lawsuit said. “She felt like a fish in a fishbowl with everyone glaring at her, which in turn made her feel unsafe.”
Representatives for the Esalen Institute did not respond to a request for comment.
The Times emailed and messaged Roche and his wife, Camille Maurine, who's on the faculty of the Esalen Institute, according to his website, but did not hear back. Roche and Maurine, who live in Marina del Rey, are not listed on the Esalen Institute website as faculty members.
Evans ultimately decided to stay at the retreat. But word had already gotten around about the incident, and people kept approaching her about it, making her uncomfortable, the suit said.
She had another class scheduled with Roche on Sept. 8 but joined a different one to avoid him. Evans was later approached by Roche’s wife, who told her that some students had expressed concerns about her husband’s behavior during instruction, according to the lawsuit. Maurine insisted that Evans go to his class to talk about the issue, the suit states.
During class, Roche offered no apology and ignored Evans, behaving like “nothing was happening,” according to the lawsuit. A friend Evans made at the retreat confronted Roche about the incident, and he allegedly said, “I’m sorry that you regular people do not understand the brilliance of the video.” Evans, “humiliated and enraged,” walked out of the classroom.
Later that day, Maurine asked Evans to attend a meeting held by a director of the Esalen Institute to discuss the racist incident in the classroom. Roche apologized to Evans before the meeting, but “it was forced,” according to the lawsuit. The director said “he was sorry that this had happened to her.”
Evans said Roche continued to make negative comments about her after the meeting, saying that she was trying to “sabotage” him. The Esalen Institute did not effectively engage in disciplinary action against Roche for his conduct despite his history of “discriminatory and bigoted conduct,” enabling a hostile environment, the lawsuit states.
“As a result of defendants' actions, plaintiff has suffered and will continue to suffer general and special damages, including severe and profound pain and emotional distress, anxiety, depression, headaches, tension and other physical ailments, as well as medical expenses, and expenses for psychological counseling and treatment,” the lawsuit said.
Evans is represented by attorneys Ruben Guerra and Tizoc Perez-Casillas. “I think the allegations in the lawsuit speak for themselves,” Guerra said in an email statement to The Times.
Evans is suing for emotional and mental distress, and negligent supervision of an employee. A trial by jury is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday in Monterey.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.