UCLA failed to warn the public about gynecologist accused of sexual battery

UCLA officials' handling of a sexual misconduct case involving a staff gynecologist raises questions about why the campus didn't quickly suspend him or warn the public. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In June 2017, a married mother of four experiencing severe pelvic pain went to see a UCLA gynecologist. Dr. James Mason Heaps, she alleged, improperly touched her genitals, fondled her breast and buttock and made sexual remarks during the exam. She reported the conduct to UCLA in December of that year.

Once notified, UCLA officials could have immediately removed Heaps from campus or restricted his practice to protect the public while investigating the allegations, as allowed under University of California guidelines. They could have warned the campus community — which federal law requires if university officials decide someone accused of sexual assault is a safety threat. They could have encouraged other potential victims to step forward.

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UCLA officials did none of these things before announcing Heaps’ retirement last June without telling the public they found he had violated UC policies on sexual misconduct. He strongly denies all allegations of wrongdoing.

UCLA’s actions have come under scrutiny since officials announced criminal charges against Heaps on Monday. Interviews and documents reviewed by The Times raise new questions about how UCLA handled the case at a time when the UC system touts itself as a national leader in establishing strong sexual misconduct policies being more sensitive to victims and responsive to complaints.

Allowed to continue his practice, Heaps saw another patient in February 2018, two months after the initial complaint. She too alleged sexual misconduct, saying Heaps improperly put his fingers in her vagina. UCLA, contacted by the patient’s attorney this year, agreed to a settlement that the university says it will disclose in further detail in coming weeks.

This week, at least 22 other women have stepped forward alleging that Heaps sexually assaulted them while practicing at UCLA. The university also discovered two other complaints about Heaps while it was investigating the 2017 allegation.

In addition, about 75 people have contacted UCLA about Heaps since the university announced that Los Angeles prosecutors have charged the doctor with sexual battery in the two university cases. About half complained about inappropriate conduct by Heaps or possibly other physicians, UCLA’s communication and other issues; a quarter supported the doctor; and the rest had other questions, said Rhonda Curry, spokeswoman for UCLA Health.

Heaps has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges of sexual battery during his treatment of two patients at a university facility. His attorney, Tracy Green, said Heaps was a “respected, talented and thorough gynecological oncologist” whose treatment was always medically necessary and done with respect for patients.

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“Everything was done for a medical reason,” Green said. She called the allegations “baseless” and said Heaps would fight them.

Heaps and the UC regents also face two civil lawsuits filed this week by women treated in 2017, who are each identified as Jane Doe.

One lawsuit, which alleges that a female medical chaperone in the room witnessed the “horrific encounter” between Doe and Heaps but remained silent, includes allegations of sexual battery, emotional distress, gender discrimination, negligent supervision and failure to warn the public and properly train and educate UC staff on sexual misconduct. That lawsuit, filed Tuesday, involves the woman with pelvic pain.

The second lawsuit, filed Friday, involves a college student who was 18 at the time of her July 2017 appointment with Heaps. She alleges he sexually touched her genitals, made vulgar comments about her body and asked embarrassing and medically unnecessary questions about her sex life.

Attorney John Manly said 21 women have contacted him this week with complaints about Heaps. “This is a clear case of a cover-up,” Manly said. UCLA “only made it public when they knew he was being slapped in handcuffs."

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in an interview this week that the university properly followed UC sexual misconduct policies and reported the complaints to the state medical board and law enforcement but did not act as “promptly or as efficiently as I think we should have.”

Block said UCLA did not disclose the allegations of sexual misconduct in announcing Heaps’ retirement last June because the university was still investigating them.

“We really wanted to know the full facts before we were to make that kind of announcement,” he said. “Quite frankly, I take responsibility here. We should have done a better job communicating with patients more quickly.”

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Block has apologized to patients for harm caused. He has created an independent committee to review the university’s handling of complaints against Heaps and how to improve sexual misconduct procedures in clinical settings.

Jennifer McGrath, an attorney representing both Jane Does, alleged that Heaps’ celebrity as a high-profile gynecologist whose practice generated millions of dollars to UCLA may have played a role in the way he was treated. Last year, Heaps earned more than $1 million, far outstripping the 629 other UC employees in the same job category of Health Sciences Clinical Professor Series (the next highest-paid employee, at UC San Francisco, earned about $477,000). Heaps was listed by the Hollywood Reporter in 2015 as one of the top gynecologists and obstetricians in Los Angeles.

“We allege that James Heaps used his position of power and authority to abuse multiple women, and UCLA used its institutional authority to try to sweep his misconduct under the rug,” McGrath said.

Curry, the UCLA spokeswoman, said his stature was “absolutely not” the reason for UCLA’s handling of the case.

She said UCLA launched a Title IX investigation into Heaps on Dec. 22, 2017, two days after the woman who was treated in June 2017 made her complaint. In May 2018, the Title IX office referred the case to medical staff to assess whether Heaps’ treatment was medically appropriate.

In September, after Heaps retired, the external peer review by Greeley Co. found that he had acted inappropriately in touching the patient’s buttocks and asking about her genital piercings. Greeley did not interview Heaps.

But UCLA never completed the Title IX investigation and therefore never informed patients of any findings or sanctions. The independent committee will investigate why that happened, Curry said. The committee also will look into why UCLA failed to report the 2017 complaint in a timely fashion to federal authorities and whether doing so was required under the Clery Act, she said.

In fact, the reason that UCLA officials informed Heaps in April 2018 that they would not reappoint him was not because of the 2017 complaint, she said, but because of an unrelated financial issue and violation of UC sexual misconduct policies.

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Other issues raised include UCLA’s promptness in responding to the complaints. Brett Sokolow, president of the Assn. of Title IX Administrators, said universities usually can consult medical experts and gain a consensus within 24 hours as to whether a physician’s treatment was outside the range of standard practice. UCLA took six months to place Heaps on leave and nine months before determining his treatment was inappropriate.

If universities keep accused physicians in place, Sokolow said, they should consider imposing safety measures, such as restricting or monitoring the doctor’s practice or redirecting patients. Curry said UCLA placed no restrictions on Heaps until putting him on leave in June 2018. Nor did the university make any attempt to encourage other potential victims to step forward, another best practice, until this week. UCLA has created a webpage with information about the Heaps case, which includes a hotline for complaints at (888) 961-9273.

Sokolow also questioned UCLA’s failure to complete its Title IX investigation and allowing a doctor to retire without disclosing the reason why.

“To allow someone to resign in a situation like that probably shows more coddling of faculty and an employee of an institution than most institutions do at this point,” he said.

He added that at least half a dozen universities have been hit with complaints of sexual misconduct by staff physicians in the last 60 to 90 days as high-profile cases at USC and Michigan State University have raised awareness about the line between acceptable and inappropriate medical exams.

“What had previously been very quiet is now much better known as a trend with more and more people coming forward,” he said.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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