Gynecologic Oncologist Faces Criminal Charges for Sexual Assault

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

June 21, 2019

A gynecologic oncologist who worked at the University of Califonia, Los Angeles (UCLA), has been accused by a cancer patient of repeated sexual assault during 2 years of treatment. The lawsuit comes on top of previous claims of sexual assault from 22 women.

The lawsuit alleges that James Heaps, MD, a former employee of UCLA, inappropriately touched the patient's genitals, fondled her breasts, and squeezed her nipples, under the guise of a medical examination.

Criminal charges have been filed on behalf of this plaintiff and another patient.

In addition, at least 22 other women have alleged that they were sexually assaulted by Heaps while he was practicing at UCLA.

Heaps denies all charges. His lawyer, Tracy Green, told Medscape Medical News that the allegations against Heaps are "are baseless and untrue."

Heaps has not worked at UCLA since June 2018, when he was placed on leave. He subsequently announced his retirement. UCLA is now conducting a review.

"Physicians and their regulatory organizations have done a very poor job of policing themselves," said John Manly, attorney for the cancer patient who filed the lawsuit. "Right now there are dozens of physicians practicing in California who have been disciplined for sexual misconduct with their patients."

Manly told Medscape Medical News that this does not reflect on the vast majority of physicians. "Most physicians, and especially oncologists, do an unbelievable service for the health of the community," he said. "But just like there are a number of bad lawyers out there, there are a number of bad physicians.

"And when the first concern of the institutions they work for and the regulatory bodies that supervise them is allowing them to continue to practice, this is the result," he added.

Multiple Complaints

The lawsuit was filed by a 44-year-old patient who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma. The patient received treatment from Heaps at UCLA from October 2015 to June 2017.

According to the lawsuit, the patient presented in the emergency department three times for severe abdominal pain during a 2-week period. She eventually underwent surgery and was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She subsequently saw Heaps for follow-up appointments, which is when the sexual assault allegedly took place.

In the lawsuit, she claims that Heaps forced her to expose her breasts. He then inappropriately touched them under the guise of conducting a breast examination. He also rubbed her clitoris under the guise of performing a pelvic exam.

The plaintiff also asserts that there was never a female chaperone present during these exams.

The lawsuit seeks damages from both Heaps and UCLA.

The university has come under attack for its failure to act when complaints were first lodged against Heaps.

Heaps was employed by UCLA as an ob-gyn from 2014 to 2018. He did his internship and residency in obstetrics and gynecology and held a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at UCLA. From 1989 to 2018, Heaps served on the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine and maintained a private practice independently from his appointments at UCLA until 2014. During his residency and fellowship, until June 2010, Heaps was a part-time consulting physician for UCLA Student Health.

Manly said that UCLA has received complaints about Heaps for years. "They had a major complaint in 2014, which was made to a senior health official, and they didn't act on it," he said. "In 2017, they finally acted on a complaint. How can you let someone like this continue to practice?"

UCLA Response

"When we received a complaint in 2017, our investigation led us to two earlier complaints, one from 2014 and one from 2015," a UCLA spokesperson told Medscape Medical News. "We learned of a fourth patient complaint after Dr Heaps was no longer employed."

The UCLA internal review committee is looking into the circumstances and events. These are the four complaints to date:

  • 2014 complaint — was learned about during an investigation of the 2017 complaint

  • 2015 complaint (about events in 2008) — was learned about during an investigation of the 2017 complaint

  • 2017 complaint (about events in 2017) — the complaint that triggered the investigation

  • 2019 complaint (about events in 2018) — the fourth patient complaint (after Heaps' employment had been terminated)

The 2017 and 2019 complaints are the ones for which Heaps has been charged with sexual battery.

A statement from UCLA, issued by Gene D. Block, PhD, chancellor of UCLA, and John Mazziotta, MD, PhD, vice chancellor, notes that "sexual abuse in any form is unacceptable and represents an inexcusable breach of the physician-patient relationship.

"We are deeply sorry that a former UCLA physician violated our policies and standards, our trust and the trust of his patients. Because we know we can and must do better, in March 2019, we initiated an independent review of our institution's response to sexual misconduct in clinical settings. The review is examining UCLA's response to such conduct and whether our policies and procedures to prevent, identify and address sexual misconduct are consistent with best practices and reflect the high standard of patient care we demand of ourselves," it states.

Abuse or Usual Care?

Heaps' lawyer said that the acts that have been characterized as constituting sexual assault were in fact part of usual care. "Dr Heaps was being a good, thorough, gynecological oncologist," she told Medscape Medical News.

She said that the 2014 complaint was investigated by UCLA and the medical board and that no misconduct was found.

"And for all of the complaints that were made — I don't know about the 20 or so women that just popped up after this became public — but for the four main complaints, there was always a female chaperone there," she said.

The circumstances regarding one of the patients who has filed criminal charges were described in an article in the LA Times. The woman said she saw Heaps in 2017 because she was having severe pelvic pain. The patient said that Heaps asked about her genital piercing, examined her lower back, and touched her buttocks. She also accused him of inappropriately touching her breasts.

Green said that the back story to this is that 5 days earlier, the woman had undergone a procedure in which an interuterine device (IUD) was inserted. She subsequently experienced symptoms of cramping and pelvic pain. Green said that the exam that the patient regarded as inappropriate was an attempt to identify the source of her pain. The exam involved trying to determine whether the patient had developed an infection.

"He did a pelvic ultrasound, and the IUD appeared to be in place, so he wanted to rule out any other problems, like pelvic inflammatory disease," she said. "He palpated her back, looking for possible kidney stones or if there were any other issues going on, and checked for breast tenderness, since her IUD also released hormones. He also looked at the genital piercing to see if it could be a source of infection."

Regarding another patient, Heaps performed an annual pelvic and breast exam. The complaint was that he used two hands, Green explained. "She never had that before. It's called a bimanual pelvic exam for a reason."

She also pointed out that the medical board did not have an expert undertake a review of these cases, or even examine the records.

On its website, UCLA states that in 2018, "Dr Heaps was investigated for sexual misconduct and improper billing practices. We reported him to the Medical Board of California, and the US Department of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General ("OIG"), and law enforcement. We also informed Dr Heaps that his employment was being terminated, after which he announced he was retiring."

Green maintains that UCLA has behaved irresponsibly in many ways, not only regarding Heaps but in the manner in which they handled the situation. "They forwarded on the complaints, but the medical board did not reach any conclusion that it was a crime or outside the standard of care," said Green. "And UCLA specifically stated that his contract was renewed not because of any alleged misconduct with any patient but due to the totality of other issues, such as billing irregularities and some other things."

In a university setting, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 applies to all employees. Heaps had been an employee since 2014 when UCLA bought his practice. "But they only did a preliminary assessment of these complaints and never finished their investigation," Green contends. "He never had a hearing on it, there were never any specific findings, and then the medical board just sent it to the DA's [district attorney's] office."

The charges against Heaps became public in early June 2019 after he surrendered to law enforcement and pleaded not guilty to all charges. According to a report in the LA Times, the district attorney asked for $70,000 bail, but Heaps was released on his own recognizance.

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