Likely Suicide of Johns Hopkins Ob/Gyn Tied to Secret Photos

February 20, 2013

An obstetrician-gynecologist who apparently committed suicide after he was accused of secretly taking photographs and videos of his patients poses a huge legal liability for his longtime employer, Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, legal experts say.

"Someone will probably sue [Johns Hopkins]," said attorney Tony Francis, MD, in Bel Aire, Kansas, who writes advisory reports for federal judges. "It will boil down to the question of did they know, or should they have known, that the guy was doing this."

Magnifying the legal threat to Johns Hopkins is that former patients of the obstetrician-gynecologist in question, 54-year-old Nikita Levy, MD, likely number in the thousands. Dr. Levy had worked for Johns Hopkins since 1988.

Plaintiffs' attorneys in Maryland began soliciting Dr. Levy's former patients online as soon as the news broke yesterday of the physician's death and the charges against him. He was found dead at his home in Towson, Maryland, on February 18 by Baltimore County police who responded to a medical emergency call. A department spokesperson said no gun or knife was found on the scene and that the death is being investigated as a suicide.

Baltimore city police are conducting a criminal investigation into Dr. Levy's activities at Johns Hopkins. They have not ruled out the physician might have distributed the images he took.

"We don't know if anyone else was involved," Anthony Guglieglmi, a spokesperson for the Baltimore police department, told Medscape Medical News. "We have no evidence yet suggesting that, but we want to close that theory. And we want to determine exactly what was going on. That's the least we can do for the victims."

"An exorbitant amount of evidence" was found in Dr. Levy's home, according to a police department announcement. Guglielmi said police will contact victims on the basis of that evidence, which he declined to characterize. He said the department has techniques to identify people in images even though their faces are not shown.

Dr. Levy allegedly captured some of his images using a camera hidden inside an ink pen, according to Guglielmi.

Dr. Levy likely violated federal and state child pornography laws, according to a blog entry posted yesterday by Baltimore attorney Brian Thompson. Videos and photos of the genitalia of anyone younger than 18 years would constitute child pornography, Thompson wrote. It also would be a crime under Maryland law if Dr. Levy indeed had surreptitiously photographed or videotaped the "private areas" of patients 18 years and older, said Thompson, a senior partner at the law firm Silverman Thompson Slutkin White and a former Maryland prosecutor.

The legal threat for Johns Hopkins Medicine is probably civil, as opposed to criminal, litigation. The attorney Dr. Francis, who blogs for Medscape Medical News, said former patients might sue the institution for failing to prevent invasion of privacy, arguing that it should have known what Dr. Levy was up to.

Andrew Slutkin, another senior partner at Silverman Thompson Slutkin White, told Medscape Medical News that civil litigation could center on other claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress and using the likeness of someone without permission. Plaintiffs could argue that as Dr. Levy's employer, Johns Hopkins is vicariously liable for damages because what he did was in the normal course of his work and that it "should have supervised him better." Johns Hopkins, Slutkin said, could counter that Dr. Levy's behavior was so outrageous as to be outside the scope of his job.

Slutkin, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Johns Hopkins may settle any civil cases brought against it because "this is something most institutions don't want to take to trial."

In the blog entry that it posted, Slutkin's law firm invites Dr. Levy's patients to contact its office "to discuss your rights as a potential victim." Some 35 individuals have gotten in touch with the law firm since yesterday, said Slutkin. Some of them said Dr. Levy also treated their "minor children."

Dr. Levy "Acknowledged" His Illegal Behavior, says Johns Hopkins

In a statement released February 18, Johns Hopkins Medicine said that "words cannot express how deeply sorry we are for every patient whose privacy may have been violated.

"Dr. Levy's behavior violates Johns Hopkins code of conduct and privacy policies and is against everything for which Johns Hopkins Medicine stands."

The statement laid out a spare chronology of events in the case.

On February 4, an employee alerted Johns Hopkins to Dr. Levy's practice of secret photography. The security department at Johns Hopkins investigated the allegations, and "within a day we determined that Dr. Levy had been illegally and without our knowledge photographing his patients and possibly others with his personal photographic and video equipment and storing those images electronically."

At that point Dr. Levy was prohibited from having any further contact with patients. Johns Hopkins said it promptly reported Dr. Levy's photographic activities — "which Dr. Levy acknowledged" — to the Baltimore police department.

On February 8, Johns Hopkins fired Dr. Levy and offered him counseling services as well. It sent a letter to his current patients informing them of Dr. Levy's departure and assuring them of continued medical care.

Johns Hopkins has established a call center (1-855-546-3785) for Dr. Levy's former patients and also has offered them counseling. The board of trustees of Johns Hopkins will launch an independent investigation in cooperation with law enforcement.

The Baltimore police department also has set up a telephone hotline for former patients and others to call regarding Dr. Levy. Guglielmi said about 300 individuals have called so far.

Nothing surfaces in public records regarding Dr. Levy, a 1984 graduate of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, that would foreshadow the alleged secret photographing of patients. The Web site of the Maryland Board of Physicians does not list any disciplinary actions, malpractice judgments, or arbitration awards against Dr. Levy in the last 10 years. There also are no malpractice settlements reported within the last 5 years. Guglielmi, the Baltimore police spokesperson, said Dr. Levy had no prior criminal record.