The University of California has offered to pay $73 million to settle with 5,000 women their class-action lawsuit asserting a staff gynecologist sexually abused them during medical procedures. This is yet another big case involving claims of years of widespread and sordid professional misconduct that somehow went undetected at a major institution, which has acknowledged it reacted poorly when confronted with a problematic clinician.
The proposed settlement still requires the sign-off of a federal judge, and it may not go through if more plaintiffs decide against joining this deal, as lawyers in Los Angeles have said they will not.
James Heaps, 67, a one-time gynecologist who is at the center of the scandal at UCLA, also still faces criminal charges for his actions during his 1983-2019 career at the university, in its student health center and at its medical center. The Los Angeles Times reported that the doctor was first arrested in June 2019 for sexually touching two patients in 2017. But then:
“That criminal case expanded in August 2020 when prosecutors charged Heaps with sexual abusing five patients. He now faces 20 felony counts and is charged with sex crimes spanning a period from 2011 to 2018. The charges include sexual battery by fraud, sexual exploitation of a patient and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. He faces more than 67 years in prison if convicted of all charges. Since the doctor’s arrest in June 2019, more than 200 women have come forward to report Heaps subjected them to sexually inappropriate comments, touched them sexually during exams without wearing gloves, and simulated intercourse with an ultrasound probe. Heaps’ medical license was suspended last year after he pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.”
UCLA, with a scandal exploding across town over Dr. George Tyndall, a longtime student health service gynecologist at the University of Southern California, has acknowledged handling patients’ complaints about Heaps poorly. An independent investigation found the university received negative information about Heaps in 2017, putting him on leave the next year after officials’ initial inquiries. The school declined to renew his contract in 2018, he retired, and UCLA said nothing until confronted by women and reports in the Los Angeles Times.
The UC system said that it has improved procedures and will undertake more reforms as part of the class-action settlement, the newspaper reported:
“UCLA agreed to create a new process for investigating allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. It must also implement a formal chaperone policy for patients. It must also initiate a training program on boundaries and ensure that patients are informed about reporting misconduct.”
Lawyers for the seven plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit said the prospective settlement, which would be handled with confidentiality and allow women to avoid public testimony, would pay harmed patients anywhere from a minimum of $2,500 up to $250,000, depending on their claims of sexual misconduct by Heaps. At least one lawyer in Los Angeles said those sums would not be sufficient and that those who claim they were harmed by the doctor, including the 100-plus clients he represents, want their day in court to seek justice.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on children, youths, and women due to sexual abuse. Sexual misconduct cases can be fraught enough already, but they become even more problematic when the accusations involve trusted parties, particularly medical providers, not to mention coaches, clerics, and leaders of youth groups.
Shame, secrecy, and power imbalances can make it difficult for the victimized to get others to listen to and act appropriately about sexual abuse claims. This was shown in the recent federal fraud case involving decades of abuse of women patients by a profit-hungry Chesapeake gynecologist. He was charged with and convicted of federal felonies — long after patients and nurses said they had blown the whistle on his misdeeds and were ignored. Hundreds of women have come forward with complaints about the doctor.
In the case involving USC gynecologist Tyndall, a federal judge approved a $215-million settlement for 18,000 women who were his patients. Huge sums have been awarded to sexual abuse victims at Penn State, Michigan State, and the U.S. Olympics women’s gymnastics program. Young men also have made claims of sexual misbehavior by school doctors at the University of Michigan, USC, and Ohio State University, which has sought to settle significant claims. The Boy Scouts have been barraged by more than 82,000 sexual abuse claims as part of a bankruptcy court deadline for filings aimed at assisting the organization in sorting out its staggering potential liabilities. The Catholic Church shocked its faithful further, with a recent report that the Vatican knew for decades of sexual misbehavior claims against Theodore McCarrick. The prelate rose still to be an archbishop, then a cardinal in Washington, D.C., before he was defrocked and disgraced.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to better protect the vulnerable from sexually inappropriate or abusive behavior, notably including the disproportionate injury that women long have suffered from the medical establishment. Specialists in care for women and men need to ensure their patients have a clear and full understanding as to what is appropriate and what is not in procedures. Doctors may wish to reassure patients by having qualified and acceptable medical staff in the room when performing invasive and intimate work. Parents and other grown-ups need to keep open their eyes, ears, and lines of communication with young people to ensure that even older offspring can express concerns about their experiences with adults who may have influence in their lives. We cannot go another generation with so many people with lives changed forever by sexual predation or exploitation.