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More women sue UCLA over alleged sexual abuse by doctor after $73-million class action settlement

Former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps walks with a man and a woman.
Former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps, far right, facing sexual abuse charges by a former patient, leaves Los Angeles Superior Court after a criminal hearing on Nov. 6, 2019. Heaps is accompanied by his attorney Leonard Levine, left, and wife Deborah Heaps.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The female patient vividly remembers her visit eight years ago to the UCLA office of Dr. James Heaps. He was a respected gynecologist at a revered medical institution. There was a female chaperone in the examination room, but she had her back to the patient.

Without gloves, the doctor began by cupping and fondling the patient’s breast in what seemed like an overly long exam, she said. “I thought that was a little odd,” she recalled. Next, Heaps performed a pap smear and after removing the device, she said, “he stroked my clitoris from top to bottom. I froze. I’d never been touched by a doctor like that.”

The patient hurriedly dressed and dashed out of the office.

“I called a friend,” she said. “I told her I just got molested by my doctor.” The words made her feel awful, she said, and she never wanted to discuss it again. But after Heaps was criminally charged in 2019 with abusing his patients, the Los Angeles woman called UCLA to report on her own experience.

In January, a judge approved a $73-million class-action settlement with more than 5,000 former patients of Heaps who said they were sexually battered by the physician. In the settlement, UCLA and Heaps, 67, who was employed at the UCLA student health center and UCLA Medical Center from 1983 to 2019, did not admit any wrongdoing.

But the 49-year-old patient, whose alleged experience with the doctor dates back to 2013, said she isn’t about to settle her case.

This week the woman sued UCLA and Heaps along with another female patient who alleges she too was inappropriately touched by Heaps, during an examination in 1992. Identified as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, the women are suing over allegations of sexual assault, sexual battery, emotional distress and negligence. The Times is not naming any of the plaintiffs in keeping with its policy regarding victims of sexual assault.

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“There must be accountability,” said Sandra Ribera Speed, one of the attorneys representing the women. She said the class action settlement approved in January might work for some victims, but others want answers.

UCLA typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The settlement agreement was criticized by a state lawmaker who wrote the law allowing accusers in the UCLA case more time to sue. Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) said the deal undermines the intent of Assembly Bill 3092, which took effect Jan. 1, and gives plaintiffs in class action cases until the end of 2021 to file lawsuits. But the settlement gives victims who want to pursue their cases separately only 90 days to do so.

The agreement undermines the legislation “by dramatically shortening the amount of time a victim may file a case against UCLA and Dr. Heaps,” Wicks said. Dozens of women opted out of the civil case that resulted in the settlement agreement.

John Manly, whose firm represents more than 112 alleged victims, said the settlement benefits only lawyers and the UC system, which wants to keep a lid on the level of scrutiny it faces over its knowledge of prior abuses.

The civil litigation is separate from the criminal case against Heaps, which was expanded in August 2020 when prosecutors charged the doctor with sexually abusing more patients. He now faces 20 felony counts, including sexual battery by fraud, sexual exploitation of a patient, and sexual penetration of an unconscious person.

Heaps, who has pleaded not guilty, faces more than 67 years in prison if convicted of all charges. A preliminary hearing in the case is slated for April.

Heaps’ lawyer has said his client is not guilty of criminal charges and maintains he acted in an appropriate manner.


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