A federal judge has given final approval to the $73 million settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by more than 5,500 women against former University of California, Los Angeles gynecologist James Heaps.
The women say the doctor sexually abused, assaulted and harassed them during physical examinations as early as in the 1980s. Some survivors say Heaps recommended additional exams to create more opportunities for abuse. Others allege he took off the former patients’ clothing without their permission. The lawsuit claims the assaults took place at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the school's student health center or Heaps' university medical office.
Elizabeth Kramer, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against both Heaps and the University of California Board of Regents, tells KCRW her clients are very relieved and proud to have secured compensation for thousands of other former patients. “This is recognition of the abuse they experienced and at least [provides] some sense of closure.”
Kramer says she feels privileged to represent the sexual assault survivors. “These are extremely personal, difficult claims. It’s hard to celebrate, given the context of what's happened here. But I'm very happy that we've had a process that is fair and meaningful. Hopefully it can provide these women with the ability to move forward.”
The lawsuit also aims to hold UCLA accountable for allowing the gynecologist to continue to treat patients even after the school launched a Title IX investigation into him in 2017. Some of the survivors allege they had complained about the doctor years earlier. The plaintiff lawyer says the school committed “policy and procedure failure.”
“[UCLA] didn't take action while thousands of more women were put in harm's way and potentially abused. Through the class action, we have mandated institutional reforms that are aimed at preventing the same type of sexual harassment and abuse from happening again.”
In addition to the $73 million compensation, the university has undertaken reforms such as implementing a new investigation model for sexual harassment and abuse, and providing a trained chaperone to accompany patients 8 and up on their intimate physical exams.
Students and patients also have enhanced reporting options when sexual abuse and harassment occurrs. “It's with court oversight and enforcement that we can ensure that these changes actually happen.”
The latest approval comes after University of Southern California agreed to one of the largest settlements for sexual abuse survivors, promising a $1.1 billion payout in March. Kramer says the large settlements with the two leading universities should serve as models for other institutions.
“We hope that other major institutions take a look at these cases and try to ensure that they too are listening to women and taking any reports of misconduct seriously.”
In response to the settlement approval, UCLA Health said in a statement that it believes “sexual misconduct or abuse is inexcusable,” adding that the organization remains “committed to providing quality care that respects the dignity of every patient.”