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Hopkins settlement not the end for victims

Hospitals and ClinicsJohns Hopkins HospitalNikita LevyCommunity Health Systems Incorporated

Attorneys for Johns Hopkins Hospital and a plaintiffs' group have settled on a dollar figure in the case of the gynecologist who was secretly filming patients during examinations, but some victims say their trauma will last well beyond the complex litigation.

Stazi Simmons-Whitehead, 37, was a patient of Dr. Nikita A. Levy from 2007 until his death in 2013, and sent her teenage daughters to him as well.

She said she still experiences nightmares and panic attacks. She has a thyroid problem that requires blood tests annually, she said, but she hasn't been to the doctor in two years. She has been in therapy since the investigation unfolded.

"The fact that I felt like I put my kids in harm's way was just too much to handle," she said.

A judge gave preliminary approval Monday to a settlement in which Hopkins will pay a $190 million settlement to Levy's victims — one of the largest deals of its kind. More than 8,000 former patients might be eligible for damages, and the pool could grow. The case has led to changes in how Hopkins oversees its doctors, and could result in higher liability insurance premiums for the world-renowned institution.

"This resonates, because we all go to the doctor, we all trust these people to do the right thing," said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center. "No amount of money is going to make these [patients] feel safe if the next doctor, the next dentist, the next minister, can do the same thing."

Levy, an obstetrician and gynecologist with the Johns Hopkins Community Health Systems, practiced at an East Baltimore clinic for 25 years. He was fired in February 2013 after Hopkins officials found he had been photographing and filming patients using tiny cameras concealed in pens and key fobs.

A female colleague had reported Levy to Hopkins after observing what she believed was suspicious behavior.

Hopkins contacted police. Levy took his own life after officers raided his home and seized hard drives and computers.

On those devices, investigators found more than 1,300 video clips and images. Authorities do not believe he shared the images online or with others; attorneys for the plaintiffs say they can't be certain he didn't.

Patients also accused Levy of "boundary violations" and said he sometimes directed nurses out of the room, against policy.

It will not be known exactly which of Levy's thousands of patients were actually recorded. The images are of genitals during pelvic exams, and attorneys for both the plaintiffs' attorneys and Hopkins agreed to forgo the difficult and potentially invasive process of attempting to identify the women.

"Is it appropriate of the patient to believe she was included ... and to have an emotional and physical reaction to that?" Jonathan Schochor, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, asked reporters at a news conference Monday. "Of course it is. That's the gravamen of the case."

But it also leaves Levy's patients to wonder. Statistics on sexual violence suggest that many of the women had already experienced some type of abuse, said Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. And visiting the gynecologist can require a level of mental preparation or even a discussion with a counselor, she said.

The feeling of being violated by a physician "can certainly make any person second-guess being in a similar situation going forward," she said.

"Knowing they were re-victimized in this way, I imagine it's something that will take a tremendous amount of support and strength to begin to go through this recovery process," Marsh said.

One of the first of Levy's former patients to come forward was Tyesha Bell, 30. Bell said Levy had been an exceptional physician, and she had referred her mother, cousins, aunts and co-workers to him.

She described him as caring and compassionate, and said he was always available.

"I wanted to know why he did it. I just wanted to know why," she said. "There's so many women who trusted you."

Like Simmons-Whitehead, Bell said the idea of going back to a gynecologist prompts fear.

"I'm a woman who stays on top of her appointments, but the sheer anxiety … I've tried to make several appointments, and have been a no-show," she said. "When I see a doctor with a white lab coat and a pen in his pocket, I get anxious."

Schochor, of the Baltimore firm Schochor, Federico and Staton, said attorneys from separate firms were representing about 3,800 patients before the cases were consolidated and given class-action certification last October.

The firms took out advertisements in radio, television, newspapers, magazines and online to find Levy's patients, and say they will continue to try to locate as many potential victims as possible.

To be eligible for damages, a victim must be verified to have been a patient of Levy. Each is to be evaluated by a medical professional and be placed into one of four categories of damages.

"There's no deadline," Schochor said. "These people are going to do this full-time, and they'll push it as hard as they can. We have to have an appropriate, proper allocation, and we will."

Schochor, whose firm worked on a case in Delaware involving a pediatrician accused of abusing young patients, said he has brought in professionals who worked on that case and others to help patients work through their claims. They include a psychologist and a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They're intimately familiar with the ramifications of what occurred, and the different levels of injuries and damages suffered," Schochor said.

He said the sheer number of plaintiffs to be evaluated will make it a "Herculean task."

"We may have to bring in additional people to do it," he said.

A fairness hearing is scheduled for late September, when Baltimore Circuit Judge Sylvester B. Cox is expected to give final approval to the settlement. Also at that hearing, the attorneys' fees are to be decided, and members of the suit may contest the amount of the settlement or the fees.

A distribution of the funds is to be overseen by David Higgins, a Los Angeles-based tax attorney who specializes in settlements.

"He makes sure nobody gets a dollar until the court approves it," Schochor said.

Simmons-Whitehead said the process so far has been a lot of "sitting and waiting," with little communication from attorneys handling the class-action suit.

She said she learned about the settlement from a friend, who learned about it from media reports.

"I don't think they care about what the patients went through," she said. "To this day, we're all still going through things."

Simmons-Whitehead said Levy saw her through two pregnancies, and a partial hysterectomy, which he recommended and which she now regrets.

She blames Hopkins for denying her a sense of closure. She said the institution took too long to investigate the claims.

An attorney for Hopkins said Monday that the institution acted swiftly against a "rogue employee," and could not have known what he was up to.

"He should have been arrested, and brought to justice," Simmons-Whitehead said. "They let that man take the coward's way out."

She said she wants assurance that the images Levy took will be destroyed. Attorneys said the images were in the custody of a firm, and will be destroyed once the legal proceedings are concluded.

"What I care about is making sure my kids are not exposed — and being able to trust a medical professional with my life, my body, and my privacy," she said.

Butler, of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, said the settlement payout will likely provide little solace.

"Most of those victims we deal with would much rather the crime never have occurred," Butler said. "You can't unring a bell. And so, in this case, really, with the inability to have criminal prosecution and to feel justice, this is the only justice that they'll ever receive."

Bell, one of Levy's former patients, praised her attorney, Scott A. Snyder, but said she doesn't want anyone to think the patients were after money.

"I got text messages from friends who said, 'Congratulations,' on this lawsuit [settlement]," Bell said. "But it's not a cheerful moment for me."

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Hospitals and ClinicsJohns Hopkins HospitalNikita LevyCommunity Health Systems Incorporated
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