UCLA pays $243 million more for gynecologist’s sexual wrongdoing

bruinslogo-300x214The City of Angels has become an epicenter of big settlements paid to women harmed by doctors in university health care systems.

The University of California at Los Angeles disclosed that it will pay $243 million to 203 patients who asserted they were sexually mistreated by James Heaps, a gynecologist who was affiliated with the school in various capacities for decades. As the Los Angeles Times reported of the claims against Heaps, including those that  led to the filing of criminal charges against him:

“Heaps faces 21 felony counts — including sexual battery by fraud, sexual exploitation of a patient and sexual penetration of an unconscious person — involving several female patients. He could be sentenced to more than 67 years in prison if convicted of all charges. He has pleaded not guilty and insists he acted in an appropriate manner, his lawyer said.”

The New York Times reported these explicit assertions about Heaps:

“The allegations against Dr. Heaps, which span two decades, include that he used a painful vaginal examination technique, inappropriately touched women during exams, unnecessarily touched a patient’s genital piercing, groped patients’ breasts during breast exams, and made inappropriate sexual comments to patients and employees, according to a May 2020 UCLA special committee report that reviewed accusations of sexual misconduct in clinical settings.”

The news media reported that the university had little choice but to settle with women who stepped forward with abuse claims against the gynecologist, notably because the complaints had gone for so long and evidence emerged that school officials failed to act on them. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

“The UC system has acknowledged that staff members received complaints about Heaps dating back to the 1990s, and even when it took a detailed report in 2017 and initiated investigations, it took a year for him to leave. UCLA made no public statements about Heaps’ alleged conduct upon his retirement in 2018, when the school declined to renew his contract. UCLA notified law enforcement of the allegations against Heaps on June 14, 2018. He was arrested in June 2019 and charged with multiple counts of sexual battery involving two patients. Heaps’ medical license was suspended in 2019 after he pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, which have since been expanded to include seven alleged victims … [An independent] report found that UCLA’s handling of Heaps and four other doctors accused of misconduct was ‘at times either delayed or inadequate or both.’ Heaps was affiliated with UCLA from 1983 to 2018 in a variety of roles, including as a faculty member at the medical school and a consulting physician at the student health center. The report noted that his medical students complained on feedback forms that he was ‘very touchy,’ ‘very inappropriate,’ and made ‘comments with innuendos.’”

UCLA’s latest settlement, the New York Times reported, “comes on top of a $73 million settlement made public in November 2020 to resolve a class-action suit that involved more than 5,000 people who had been patients of Dr. Heaps since the 1980s. About 600 women opted out of that class-action suit, and the new agreement … settles the claims of 203 of them.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s payments to victims “amounts to $1.2 million for each plaintiff, similar to one [that the school’s cross-town rival University of Southern California] struck last year that paid $852 million to more than 700 women who accused school gynecologist George Tyndall of sexual abuse, said John Manly, a lawyer for the lead plaintiff in the Heaps case.”

USC’s total payout in its sexual abuse scandal involving the former health service gynecologist has amounted to $1.1 billion, the New York Times reported. It was one in a series of whopping settlements involving universities’ medical staff and sexual wrongdoing, with those cases including:

  • Penn State’s paying nearly $60 million to 26 sexual abuse victims of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012 of abusing young boy
  • Michigan State’s agreement to pay roughly  $500 million to resolve cases involving the sexual abuse of female gymnasts by team doctor Larry Nassar
  • Ohio State University’s decision to pay $41 million (which has grown to more than $46 million) to resolve some of the lawsuits stemming from several hundred claims of sexual assaults committed by Richard H. Strauss during his nearly 20 years as a doctor in the school’s athletic department
  • And the University of Michigan’s $490 million settlementwith more than 1,000 people who had accused Robert E. Anderson, a doctor who worked with football players and other students, of decades of sexual abuse.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Boy Scouts of America may be nearing a deal to pay almost $3 billion to settle claims by tens of thousands of individuals who have asserted they were victims of sexual misconduct by adults in the youth organization over the years.

Not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on children, youths, and women by sexual abuse.

In recent times, we have seen horrific breaches of basic human decency by sexually exploitative doctors, teachers, youth leaders, and priests. This wrongdoing by trusted individuals in positions of authority or major influence on others occurs in churches, schools, colleges and universities, organized athletics, and youth groups.

Wrongdoing that occurs far too often

Sexual assault happens far too often in our country. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Unfortunately, these sex crimes often go unpunished by the criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators are never prosecuted, let alone sent to jail for their crimes.

While critics may deride the civil justice system, especially medical malpractice lawyers like me, lawsuits can provide a crucial way for victims to hold accountable sexual predators and the institutions that permit them to run amok. Victims also may suffer long-term emotional and psychological, as well as physical harms for which they will need years of costly professional care.

This kind of wrongful conduct also clearly occurs — and too often — in workplaces, and the Congress, in rare bipartisan fashion, has removed a major legal obstacle to victims seeking justice: so-called forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements. These arbitrary and patently unfair legal terms kept victims from seeking justice in the civil system, forcing them, instead, into a restrictive, private resolution efforts that research shows is unbalanced to favor employers. Arbitration typically is conducted by companies that become cozy with employers with whom the contractors do frequent business. The hearings are not public, and a record may not be kept of their proceedings.

Congress said this was no way to deal with sexual misconduct, the New York Times reported:

“The forced arbitration bill brought together an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives. It would give survivors of sexual harassment and assault the ability to sue their abusers in state, tribal or federal court, even if a survivor had signed an employment agreement that barred such lawsuits and required misconduct claims to be settled through arbitration. An estimated 60 million American workers are subject to such agreements, which have attracted attention in the years following the #MeToo movement as a major reason that it is difficult to penalize sexual abusers for their offenses. The secretive arbitration process can weigh heavily in favor of protecting perpetrators of abuse, affording victims no chance to seek accountability, proponents of the bill said.”

We have much work to do to protect the vulnerable from unwelcome, denigrating, and damaging sexual wrongs by medical personnel and other individuals in positions of authority and trust.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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