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UC to pay $73 million to victims of alleged sexual abuse by UCLA gynecologist

Dr. James Heaps, a former UCLA obstetrician-gynecologist, appears in court on  June 26, 2019.
Dr. James Heaps, a former UCLA obstetrician-gynecologist, appears in the Airport Branch Courthouse for a hearing on June 26, 2019.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The University of California system would pay $73 million under a proposed settlement reached Monday in a class-action lawsuit filed by seven women who accused a former UCLA gynecologist of sexual abuse.

James Heaps, 67, who is criminally charged with sexually abusing seven patients — not necessarily the same seven —is accused in the civil litigation of sexual assault and sexual misconduct from 1983 to 2019, during his tenure at the UCLA student health center and UCLA Medical Center.

For the record:

7:23 PM, Nov. 16, 2020An earlier version of this article said that Heaps was criminally charged with sexually abusing five women. He was previously charged in five cases, but that has grown to seven.

In addition to the named plaintiffs, the class-action lawsuit could eventually include more than 6,600 patients of Heaps. A U.S. District Court judge will have to approve the final settlement.

The agreement filed Monday also requires UCLA to undertake reform measures. UCLA has been accused of keeping Heaps’ misconduct secret before his arrest in June 2019 for sexually touching two patients in 2017.

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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 officials have acknowledged they received complaints about Heaps in 2017, and he was placed on leave the following year. But the school made no public statements about Heaps’ conduct upon his retirement in 2018, when it declined to renew his contract, and alerted the college community only after reports of his arrest last year.

According to UCLA, Heaps treated about 5,000 patients for whom the institution has records, and about 1,600 others for whom it does not have details. Heaps did not admit any wrongdoing or contribute toward the $73 million in the agreement, but he did sign off on the settlement’s terms.

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One plaintiff, reached by The Times, expressed relief about the settlement. “The trauma that I have been carrying for far too long is one that thousands of other women around the country also share,” she said in a phone interview. “I am relieved that we have reached a resolution that provides a way for other women to come forward in a confidential manner.”

The Times is not naming her or any of the other plaintiffs, in keeping with its policy regarding victims of sexual assault.

Within minutes of the settlement’s announcement, John Manly, a prominent sexual abuse attorney who represents 112 alleged victims of Heaps, said his clients won’t be part of the settlement, which was crafted by another law firm.

“This is a cynical settlement to benefit class-action lawyers and the UC system,” he said. “They struck this deal to avoid victims having their day in court.” Given the number of potential victims, he said, the settlement could amount to only about $12,000 per person.

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However, Elizabeth Kramer, the attorney for the plaintiffs in Monday’s settlement, said the agreement could provide far more money to some individuals.

She said the settlement would create a $73-million fund for survivors, with an automatic payment of $2,500 to settlement class members, who would receive the money without having to take further action. “Those who do wish to come forward can seek up to $250,000,” she said.

Under some circumstances, the agreement allows for awards of more than $250,000.

Kramer added that it “requires critical institutional reforms at UCLA to protect patients and prevent similar abuse from happening again.”

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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.

The proposed settlement is the latest agreement to give payouts to thousands of patients of male doctors who are accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. A federal judge approved a $215-million settlement for 18,000 women who were patients of a former gynecologist at USC, Dr. George Tyndall.

Heaps’ attorney did not immediately return requests for comment.

UCLA Health issued a statement thanking the women who came forward, adding that the school hopes that “this settlement — which is still subject to court approval — is one small step forward for the patients involved.”

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The health system noted that a committee assigned by the university’s Board of Regents completed a study this year of how best to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct by medical professionals.

There is a provision in the settlement that allows the UC regents to pull out of the agreement if more than 250 patients decide to pursue litigation outside the agreement. Manly said he suspects that number could be reached. In 2019, the UC Board of Regents paid $2.25 million to one female patient who alleged that Heaps sexually assaulted her, and $1.3 million to a nurse practitioner he was accused of sexually harassing,


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