Retired UCLA Gynecologist Pleads not Guilty to Sexually Abusing 2 Patients

June 11, 2019 - 7:08 am
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A retired gynecologist who worked at the University of California, Los Angeles for decades has pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing two patients during examinations and the campus is asking anyone who may have other complaints against him to step forward.

Dr. James Heaps, 62, pleaded not guilty Monday to sexual battery by fraud against two patients in 2017 and 2018. He also pleaded not guilty to a count of sexual exploitation of a patient and was released without bail.

The women weren't UCLA students but they were seen at Heaps' office on the UCLA campus.

"Sexual abuse in any form is unacceptable and represents an inexcusable breach of the physician-patient relationship," Chancellor Gene Block and Vice Chancellor John Mazziotta said in a statement. "We are deeply sorry that a former UCLA physician violated our policies and standards, our trust and the trust of his patients."

But Heaps' attorney, Tracy Green, accused the university of rushing to judgment in the wake of a headline-making scandal involving similar allegations against a former gynecologist at the University of Southern California.

USC paid out $215 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Dr. George Tyndall engaged in misconduct with patients. Hundreds of current and former USC students have made allegations against Tyndall, who has denied them and hasn't been criminally charged.

"I think they were very scared about happened at USC," Green said. "Dr. Heaps knows that he did not do this."

The USC scandal prompted a bill now in the state Senate that would make it easier for people who were abused by doctors at campus health centers as far back as 30 years ago to file for damages against the university. However, the bill explicitly exempts public universities, meaning it wouldn't apply to UCLA. The exemption was added as an amendment earlier this year. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now in the state Senate.

Green said Heaps, 62, worked a half-day a month at the UCLA student health center from 1989 to 2010 and had a private practice on campus from 1991 to 2014, when he sold it to UCLA Health and became an employee, Green said.

In 2018, following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, Heaps was notified that his contract wasn't being renewed, which was equivalent to a notification of intent to fire him, UCLA spokeswoman Rhonda Curry said.

At that point, he retired.

Curry said UCLA to date is aware of only four complaints involving Heaps and only one involved a woman who claimed she had attended UCLA.

That complaint, which came to light last year during the school's investigation, was a 2015 Yelp review of a 2008 examination, she said.

The criminal allegations involve two women, one of them a 48-year-old mother of three, whom Heaps examined in 2017 and 2018, Green said.

The 2017 patient alleged that Heaps improperly fingered her genital ring piercing and the mother alleged that he improperly placed his fingers in her vagina during an examination, Green said.

UCLA settled a claim by the 2017 patient but details were not disclosed.

"These are two baseless allegations and James Heaps' examinations were medically indicated, with medical assistants or a nurse present, and done solely for proper medical and professional purposes," Green said.

The Medical Board of California showed no records of discipline against Heaps and he has a current license to practice medicine.

"It's very clear that he only treated patients with dignity and respect," Green said.

UCLA alumnus Holly Kurtz said she was stunned by the news but impressed that her alma mater seems to be making an effort to be as transparent as possible.

"I was kind of surprised. I thought they would tell students, faculty, staff," she said. "I thought it was good that they're also telling alumni."

Kurtz, who attended UCLA in the 1970s, said she never had any interaction with Heaps, who didn't arrive until the 1980s.

Still, the revelation shocked her.

"Every time one of these things come out at a university campus or wherever, you think, 'How can this happen again?' But it does. It does," she said.

The university said current or former students who have concerns or complaints about Heaps can contact Praesidium, a company that works with businesses and organizations to help prevent sexual abuses.

Praesidium will pass on reports to UCLA and any that require reporting to law enforcement will be forwarded, Curry said.

In March, UCLA also launched an independent review of the university's response to sexual misconduct in clinical settings, and changes will be made where necessary.

"We know in health care we can always do better," Curry said. "We are deeply distressed that we have broken trust with patients ... we are always looking for improvements."

To the Campus Community:

Our university’s first and highest obligation is to the communities we serve. And so, it is with a profound sense of sadness that we report distressing information. Dr. James Heaps, a physician formerly employed by UCLA, has been charged with sexual battery in connection with his medical practice and today surrendered to law enforcement. Dr. Heaps was an obstetrician-gynecologist who worked on a part-time basis at the UCLA student health center from approximately 1983 to 2010, was hired by UCLA Health in 2014 and held medical staff privileges at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center from 1988 to 2018. We understand that these charges relate to care he provided to two patients in 2017 and 2018 at UCLA Health. Last year, in response to allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr. Heaps, UCLA investigated his conduct, removed him from clinical practice, informed him that his employment was being terminated (after which he announced he was retiring) and reported him to the Medical Board of California and law enforcement.

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, 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. Based on the findings of the review, we will identify and implement necessary changes across all of UCLA’s clinical sites. Our process will be guided by the principles of transparency, accountability, fairness and devotion to our patients.

This effort has been led by a committee consisting of Chancellor Gene Block; Joanne Corday Kozberg, a former UC regent who served as California secretary of state and consumer services for Governor Pete Wilson; the Hon. Carlos Moreno, a former California Supreme Court justice; and Lori Pelliccioni, a former UC regent and former assistant U.S. attorney with 25 years of experience in the health care industry. The review will also be aided by medical experts and build upon structural, policy and process changes that UCLA Health has already developed and implemented. You can view those policy and process changes on the UCLA Health website. We thank our colleagues for their time and service on our behalf.

UCLA has partnered with a trusted third-party resource called Praesidium, which has extensive experience in providing and connecting patients with support services. We encourage any patients with complaints or concerns about Dr. Heaps to contact Praesidium at (888) 961-9273.

With thousands of clinicians, UCLA Health is entrusted with nearly 2.5 million patient visits per year. Our goal is to provide the best experience for every patient, during every encounter, every time. Our responsibility to our patients is of paramount importance to us. We are committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure their wellbeing and maintaining the confidence and trust of the broader UCLA community.

Sincerely,

Gene D. Block
Chancellor

John Mazziotta
Vice Chancellor, UCLA Health Sciences
CEO, UCLA Health