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Lawyers scramble for patients of accused Hopkins gynecologist

One law firm has rented out a conference room in the downtown Hilton and invited patients of a Johns Hopkins gynecologist to discuss their legal options. Other firms are taking out newspaper ads, urging his patients to contact them. Others are asking clients to spread the word to other potential victims.

Baltimore lawyers have begun jockeying for a role in finding out what happened in the offices of Dr. Nikita A. Levy, who is accused of secretly photographing and videotaping patients.

All of this is happening even before all of the facts of the case are known to police, who are conducting a criminal investigation. As attorneys contemplate civil action, officers are continuing to comb through multiple computer hard drives and servers seized from Levy's Towson home.

Levy was found dead in an apparent suicide Monday, but police have revealed few details about the case because they have not ruled out that others were involved in the capturing or viewing of the images. Hopkins officials revealed the allegations against Levy after his body was found — two weeks after they learned of the doctor's alleged activities.

Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe declined to comment on any possible legal action.

Attorneys say they plan to sue as soon as possible so that they, too, can begin investigating a case that remains shrouded with questions.

Lawyers said swift civil action also could help provide answers to the hundreds of women who have contacted police, wondering whether they might have been taped or photographed. Police said Levy made at least some of the recordings with a camera hidden in the top of a pen.

"We need to wait for the smoke to clear sometime next week to see how many [clients] we have," said Baltimore attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who said he had about 25 clients as of Thursday morning. "Then we're going to move into court as quickly as possible to give us the opportunity for a more intense investigation."

Levy had practiced gynecology and obstetrics at Hopkins since 1988, the year he received his license to practice medicine in Maryland. Many patients have said they had not noticed any inappropriate behavior.

A colleague of Levy's on Feb. 4 reported the allegations of secret surveillance to Hopkins officials, who notified police. Within days, police searched his house and seized the computer equipment. Hopkins officials let Levy go Feb. 8.

He was found dead Monday, having placed a plastic bag over his head and filled it with helium, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation. Later that day, Hopkins officials revealed the investigation in a statement in which they apologized to Levy's patients and called any invasion of privacy "intolerable." Hopkins trustees also launched an internal investigation.

Levy's family has not spoken publicly since his death. A man who answered the door at Levy's home Thursday and identified himself as a relative said, "It's a very difficult time right now," adding that the family is planning to issue a statement in the next few days.

Lawyers, meanwhile, have acted quickly to connect with patients just hearing about the accusations, placing advertisements on websites and in newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun.

Medical malpractice law firm Schochor, Federico and Staton PA has gathered more than 70 clients, said attorney Jonathan Schochor.

"The sooner we begin the process, the better for everyone concerned," Schochor said. "We need to be able to more definitively define exactly what occurred here."

The Cochran Firm has rented out a conference room for Saturday afternoon in the Baltimore Hilton, where a representative said lawyers will try to inform potential victims about their rights. Scott Lucas, an attorney with the national firm, acknowledged that there's a scramble among lawyers to find potential victims.

The firm planned to line up experts on "privacy, patient advocacy, maybe an OB/GYN" and have reached out to the Police Department to see if a representative will attend. "Of course, we will have attorneys there as well," he said. He said patients have been left in the dark by Hopkins, and several have reached out to the firm trying to get answers.

"What we're trying to do is not be among the jockeying, and look at this as an opportunity to be a service to the community," he said. "We're trial attorneys, and if it leads to more, it leads to more."

Some lawyers said a class action suit could be an option, given the large number of women who police say may have been affected. Pettit said he has heard from several other firms interested in the possibility, though he hasn't determined whether he thinks a class action would be appropriate.

In class action lawsuits, people can sue as representatives for a larger number of plaintiffs who share common legal issues and facts. Such cases can be filed in either state or federal court.

It may not become clear whether a class action would be appropriate in the Levy case until more facts come to light, lawyers said. For example, there may be differences among the women, including whether they were videotaped, photographed, neither or both, said Gregory Dolin, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Law at the University of Baltimore.

The number of patients who step forward also could play a role. There is no set figure on how many cases merit a class action designation, Dolin said.

Stephen D. Sugarman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said he doesn't consider circumstances like those in the Levy case to be candidates for class action because experiences may vary among plaintiffs. Similar cases have rarely been class actions in recent years, he said.

If lawyers don't pursue a class action — in which all potential victims would be considered plaintiffs by default — a judge could agree to hear some cases together based on their similarities.

Lawyers may be jockeying for clients because those with the longest list could wield more power in court, whether in a class action or not, Pettit said. "The number of clients will dictate which law firms are in the driver's seat in terms of the litigation process," he said.

It can be complicated to determine who will take the lead when multiple plaintiffs and attorneys are involved, according to one attorney who recently resolved a class action against a Connecticut hospital that involved a doctor found to have photographed child patients in sexual poses. The case settled for about $50 million.

Richard Kenny, who represented 43 of about 150 people suing St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn., said that case involved forming a committee of three or four lawyers from 17 firms. Kenny was selected to be the liaison to the court in the case, and said his firm took the lead, deposing 50 to 70 people. He said the such arrangements make sense.

"The case gets assigned to the judge, and the judge will say, 'I'm not dealing with 15 law firms,' " Kenny said. "There was an awful lot of work done on behalf of other law firms."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

jfenton@baltsun.com

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