A new class-action lawsuit alleged UCLA failed to protect patients of former obstetrician-gynecologist James Heaps after receiving complaints about his conduct since at least early 2014.
This class-action lawsuit and other civil cases claim UCLA did not properly report early complaints to the Title IX office and suspend or terminate Heaps’ position in response.
Law firms Girard Sharp and Gibbs Law Group filed the first class-action lawsuit against Heaps and the University of California on Tuesday on behalf of women who were patients of Heaps since January 2014. At least 18 lawsuits have been filed against Heaps since UCLA notified former patients of his criminal charges in June, according to the lawsuit.
Aside from the civil cases, Heaps faces criminal charges for two counts of sexual battery and one count of sexual exploitation by a physician involving two former patients he treated in 2017 and 2018. Heaps’ lawyer Tracy Green has said he denies all charges.
Filing a class-action lawsuit allows the two women who are listed as plaintiffs to seek relief for any woman who may have similar allegations against Heaps or the UC without requiring each to file an individual civil case, said Elizabeth Kramer, a lead attorney on the case.
“We know Heaps’ misconduct is widespread and that many survivors don’t want to publicly reveal their experiences, let alone come forward and wage a court battle,” Kramer said.
Green said she thinks patients alleging sexual misconduct were ignorant about standard medical practice. She also believes many of these civil cases are primarily motivated by the financial gain of the plaintiff attorneys because they have been actively soliciting patients, she said.
The main goal of the class-action lawsuit is to hold UCLA financially accountable and to reform how UCLA presents and handles cases of sexual misconduct, Kramer said.
“We know that because there were complaints as early as 2014, the school did not respond appropriately even according to its own policies,” Kramer said.
A Title IX investigation into a 2017 complaint uncovered a 2014 complaint to UCLA Health, which the Title IX office was previously unaware of. This investigation also uncovered a separate 2015 complaint that was posted as a Yelp review for a 2008 incident, according to an email statement from a UCLA Health spokesperson.
The 2014 complaint
The class action lawsuit alleges UCLA was on notice of Heaps’ conduct since at least early 2014 when UCLA received the 2014 complaint uncovered in the Title IX investigation.
That 2014 complaint involved a 41-year-old cancer patient who sent a letter to UCLA Health and the medical board about a March 10 incident with Heaps. John Manly, a lawyer representing the cancer patient in a separate civil case from the new class-action lawsuit, said the alleged incident with his client was sexual assault.
The patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she received a letter from UCLA on April 18, 2014, a response which she felt was ambiguous and unsatisfactory.
“I didn’t know what to make of the letter, because it really didn’t acknowledge what had happened and they didn’t take any responsibility,” the patient said. “They didn’t tell me what they had done.”
The letter, which was obtained by the Daily Bruin, stated the patient’s complaint was “thoroughly reviewed and investigated” by the Executive Chair and Vice Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. However, it did not share any findings because of the confidential nature of the investigation.
Manly said he doubts the thoroughness of the investigation because UCLA Health never interviewed his client after she sent her initial complaint.
He said he thinks UCLA Health violated Title IX federal law because it failed to properly report and investigate this incident. He also thinks UCLA enabled Heaps to keep allegedly abusing women by burying this complaint and allowing Heaps to continue to work, Manly said.
“This should have been reported to the Office of (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) and … to the police,” Manly said. “This was not an investigation. It was a decision they made to deep-six this complaint like they did so many others.”
The patient said she trusted UCLA because of its reputation but felt betrayed by Heaps’ conduct. Her initial complaint in 2014 was motivated by a desire to protect other women from Heaps, she said.
“A lot of people have ended up hurt and traumatized and they didn’t need to,” the patient said. “I’m devastated because the whole point of me being vulnerable and submitting all this information was so that no one else would have to get hurt.”
Green previously said it was her understanding that the medical board and medical professionals reviewed the case. She said medical professionals who reviewed the case about the 2014 complaint found he didn’t do anything wrong from a medical perspective.
In March, UCLA began a still-ongoing independent review of its response to sexual misconduct in a clinical setting, according to an email statement from a UCLA Health spokesman. UCLA Health did not offer a reason as to why the 2014 complaint was not sent to the Title IX office.
“An independent review is examining what occurred and whether our policies and procedures are consistent with best practices and reflect the high standard of patient care we demand of ourselves,” the statement read.
Green maintains that Heaps’ conduct was always medically necessary. UCLA interviewed witnesses such as medical staff and nurses who said they never saw Heaps abuse the two patients involved in the criminal case, Green said. However these witnesses were not interviewed by the district attorney’s office or the medical board before filing charges, she added.
“They have confirmed that they never saw Dr. Heaps say or do anything that was nonmedical or could ever be characterized as sexual touching ever,” Green said.
Patients alleging sexual assault may have been misinformed of how a doctor may conduct pelvic and breast exams, Green said. She added Heaps’ thoroughness as a gynecologist has allowed him to detect a lot of cancers in his patients.
“By its very nature, a gynecological exam is intimate,” Green said. “Boundary violations may occur, but just the fact these things are occurring doesn’t mean something sexual happened.”
For example, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit alleged Heaps initially began a pap smear with his ungloved finger before using a speculum, according to the lawsuit. During a pap smear, a gynecologist uses a speculum and a swab or brush to collect cells from the cervix to test for cancer, according to the UCLA Health Library website.
Green previously said she thinks allegations that Heaps used an ungloved hand are false because Heaps always used a glove for the protection of the patient and himself.
Kramer said she disagreed with the notion that her clients in the class-action lawsuit experienced a normal standard of care.
“We thoroughly investigate the cases that we bring and we are confident that the experiences our clients had are outside the scope of acceptable medical practice,” she said.
UCLA did not renew Heaps’ appointment in April 2018 and he effectively retired in June of that year. A review of the 2017 investigation found he violated UC Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment when he retaliated against a person who participated in the investigation.
The Title IX investigation into the 2017 incident did not complete a peer medical review of Heaps’ medical records, depriving Heaps of a chance to better defend his actions, Green said.
That assessment was completed sometime after his appointment was terminated, according to a UCLA Health spokesperson.
Heaps’ next appearance in court for the criminal charges against him is scheduled for Aug. 29.