A former UCLA campus gynecologist used his position to sexually abuse seven female patients, a prosecutor told jurors as they began hearing closing arguments in the doctor’s trial on 21 felony counts.
“All doctors owe a fiduciary duty to their patients. They owe them that basic right,” Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers told jurors hearing the case against James Mason Heaps. “Instead of the defendant upholding his Hippocratic oath, he used his position as a doctor, as a specialist to sexually assault seven incredibly vulnerable women.”
Heaps, now 65, is on trial for nine counts each of sexual battery by fraud and penetration of an unconscious person by fraudulent representation, along with three counts of sexual exploitation of a patient.
The charges stem from alleged crimes between 2009 and 2018 involving seven of Heaps’ former patients.
In the start of her closing argument, Meyers said the alleged victims didn’t know each other and had just two things in common — a medical issue and the defendant.
“They were vulnerable … They put their trust in the defendant,” Meyers told the panel.
The prosecutor — who is set to continue her closing argument Tuesday — told jurors one alleged victim returned to Heaps to have an IUD taken out five days after it was inserted because she was suffering “excruciating pain.” Heaps allegedly groped the woman’s breast and buttock in what Meyers said had “no medical purpose” during a return office visit by that patient in June 2017.
The jury is also set to hear from the defense before receiving final instructions from the judge and being handed the case.
Heaps’ attorney, Leonard Levine, maintained at the start of the trial that his client performed the examinations for a “legitimate medical purpose.”
Levine said in his opening statement that he doctor was accompanied by trained medical assistants acting as chaperones who were present in the examination rooms.
Levine said his client has been “painted as a monster in the press.”
“We will prove he is innocent,” the defense attorney told jurors.
Heaps served as a gynecologist/oncologist, affiliated with UCLA, for nearly 35 years. At various times, he saw patients at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and at his office at 100 Medical Plaza.
At one time, Heaps was reportedly the highest paid physician in the UC system and had treated about 6,000 patients, attorneys said.
More than 500 lawsuits were filed against Heaps and UCLA, accusing the school of failing to protect patients after becoming aware of the misconduct.
In May, attorneys for 312 former patients of Heaps announced a $374 million settlement of abuse lawsuits against the University of California.
The settlement came on top of a $243.6 million resolution of lawsuits involving about 200 patients announced in February, and a $73 million settlement of federal lawsuits reached last year involving roughly 5,500 plaintiffs.
The lawsuits alleged that UCLA actively and deliberately concealed Heaps’ sexual abuse of patients. UCLA continued to allow Heaps to have unfettered sexual access to female patients — many of whom were cancer patients — at the university, plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in the suits.
UCLA issued a statement in May saying, “This agreement, combined with earlier settlements involving other plaintiffs, resolves the vast majority of the claims alleging sexual misconduct by James Heaps, a former UCLA Health physician.
“The conduct alleged to have been committed by Heaps is reprehensible and contrary to our values. We are grateful to all those who came forward, and hope this settlement is one step toward providing some level of healing for the plaintiffs involved.
“We are dedicated to providing the highest quality care that respects the dignity of every patient. We are taking all necessary steps to ensure our patients’ well-being in order to maintain the public’s confidence and trust.”
The university outlined a series of measures undertaken to bolster student and patient safety. It also noted that the settlement “will not impact UCLA’s teaching, research and service, including patient care, student life and campus activities. It will be covered by the UC systemwide insurance and risk financing program. Any additional required resources will be provided by UCLA Health and campus operating revenue.”
Settlement of the federal case last year required UCLA to ensure stronger oversight procedures for identification, prevention and reporting of sexual misconduct.
The federal lawsuits alleged that while patients complained about Heaps years earlier, it was not until late 2017 that allegations of sexual misconduct by the gynecologist were reported to UCLA’s Title IX office and a formal investigation was opened.
Heaps was allowed to continue seeing patients — both during the investigation and after UCLA informed Heaps that his contract would not be renewed when it expired on June 30, 2018.
UCLA ended Heaps’ employment and notified law enforcement of the allegations against him on June 14, 2018.
Heaps was arrested in June 2019 and charged with multiple counts of sexual battery. Following his arrest, many more women came forward to report alleged sexual misconduct. In August 2020, Heaps was charged with additional felonies.
In March 2021 in a similar case, USC agreed to pay more than $1.1 billion to former patients of ex-campus gynecologist George Tyndall, the largest sex abuse payout in higher education history.
Tyndall — the only full-time gynecologist at the student health clinic from 1989 until 2016 — has pleaded not guilty to dozens of sexual assault charges.