$73 Million Settlement Reached in UCLA Sexual Abuse Case

    On January 12, 2021, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California granted preliminary approval for a settlement in a medical sexual abuse case against the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The case concerned the actions of one of its former campus gynecologists. The University of California System has agreed to pay $73 million to resolve claims for 6,600 class members that Dr. James Heaps either made sexual comments or abused them during exams at the student health center and medical center from 1983-2019.

    The Allegations

    The plaintiffs say Heaps sexually abused them during examinations and recommended frequent examinations or unnecessary procedures so the abuse could continue. Further, the plaintiffs describe that during appointments, the UCLA gynecologist used sexual language, made inappropriate comments, and even removed their clothing or gowns without consent. There are additional reports that he inappropriately touched patients under the guise of a medical exam and used sexually invasive examination methods.

    For Dr. Heaps, the legal ramifications go far beyond this settlement agreement. The former UCLA doctor faces 20 counts of sexual battery, exploitation, and criminal assault. If convicted of all charges, he could face over 67 years behind bars.

    One law firm representing 140 of the victims is recommending they reject the settlement and file individual lawsuits that may garner higher awards. Over 100 of these victims have already filed individual lawsuits. Dr. Heaps continues to plead not guilty.

    UCLA and University of California’s Involvement

    As defendants in the recently settled class action, the University of California system and UCLA have also been closely scrutinized for their role in the widespread abuse. Following student complaints, UCLA began an internal investigation into James Heaps in December 2017. Upon uncovering that he had violated the university system’s sexual misconduct policy,  the university did not renew his contract and allowed him to quietly resign in 2018. However, the university did not alert the campus community to the sexual abuse allegations until 2019—after Heaps had appeared in court.

    Further, attorneys for the victims assert that UCLA had received complaints about Heaps’ behavior long before late 2017. Advocates say the university’s failure to act subjected more women to Heaps’ sexual abuse. One class member stated that while Dr. Heaps sexually abused her during an examination, a UCLA nurse turned her back to the exam area and did nothing. Other patients reported that no nurse was present in the room.

    The university system has also settled other cases involving Dr. Heap’s abuse. In 2019, the University of California Board of Regents paid $2.25 million to a woman who claimed that Heaps sexually assaulted during gynecological examinations at UCLA. The university system also paid a UCLA nurse-practitioner $1.3 million to settle allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation over her participation in the university’s internal investigations into Heaps.

    Neither UCLA nor the doctor has admitted any wrongdoing over the course of the multiple settlements. In response to the most recent agreement, a UCLA Health spokesperson wrote that “[w]e continue to believe in the fairness of this settlement and hope it provides some measure of closure for members of the class.”

    Preliminary Settlement Financial Details

    The settlement awards payments to class members under a three-tiered compensation framework. Based on the victim’s experiences, a panel of experts will decide award amounts for each patient. The panel includes a court-appointed special master, a forensic psychologist/psychiatrist, and an OB-GYN doctor.

    Individuals pre-identified as class members based on university medical care records will automatically receive the first tier award of $2,500. Others not pre-identified can also seek the $2,500 payment by filing a form. Individuals who share additional information with the panel on their experience(s) with Dr. Heaps can apply for a second-tier payment of $10,000. Lastly, victims providing further evidence and after an interview with a member of the special master’s team may be eligible for a third-tier payment between $12,500 and $250,000. With an additional $5 million pool available for certain third-tier claimants, the panel can award payment over $250,000 to victims of the most serious cases.

    Judge Klausner also conditionally approved 12% legal fees—$8.76 million—in the preliminary settlement approval. Class counsel must provide “sufficient information to support their award” to secure final approval. The hearing on final approval of the settlement is scheduled for July 12, 2021.

    UCLA Agrees to Policy and Procedure Changes

    The proposed settlement also requires UCLA to revise its sexual abuse reporting policies and procedures. The university says it plans to implement a new process for investigating allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. There will be a new formal chaperone policy implemented for medical exams and procedures. The settlement also stipulates that UCLA must train personnel on patient boundaries, advertising patient reporting options, compliance monitoring, and potential misconduct allegations investigations.