It would seem that the #MeToo movement that swept through the entertainment industry has brought out a litany of complaints across the board. One particularly worrisome trend that has captured public attention is the systemic sexual abuse reported by patients in the medical and mental health industry. California laws determine that medical and mental health professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists owe a duty of care to patients. When this duty to exercise reasonable care is violated through negligence, through intentional harm, or through sexual harassment or abuse, it is considered a breach of duty of care. Doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists who are found guilty of breach of duty of care are liable for all the allowable damages they have caused.
Oftentimes, cases filed against medical professionals include a combination of both negligent and intentional behaviors or misconduct. It tends to be difficult for patients to identify and prove negligence only, without the additional sexual or intentional misconduct. The same laws apply to medical doctors of various specialties and mental health professionals, alcohol and drug counselors, nurses, social workers and other treatment and care providers.
Sexual predators tend to take advantage of patients' vulnerability, injuries, impaired state (caused by anesthesia or medications), or physical and / mental limitations to take commit sexual crimes. When these professionals fail to protect the individuals in their care from sexual harassment or violence, either the doctor or therapist or the facility may be found responsible for the harm that results. Medical facilities are responsible for doing proper background checks and screenings, and must provide adequate supervision to prevent the dangers posed by their employees.
The Medical Board of California views willful misconduct to be one of the most egregious crimes committed by a physician. After all, doctors are held to a high standard due to the confidential nature of the doctor-patient relationship.
Medical Sexual Harassment and the Importance of Touch in Healing Professions
Touch is an important aspect of many clinical environments, as it is a tool used to discern symptoms, diagnose ailments and explain therapies to patients. Physicians spend a portion of time on procedural touch during their medical education, specifically for the purpose of handling the challenges presented by navigating physical exams without breaching professional ethics. When procedural and social touch are blended in the exam room, it can pose certain risks that range from misunderstandings to inappropriate touch or even harm. Some abusers may use force to assert their wishes on their victims.
Touch is powerful and when it is administered by a respected and trusted therapist, it can stir up admiration and even attraction. However, therapists may not accept or encourage these normal reactions or act upon it in a sexual way. There are no exceptions that condone a sexual relationship between a doctor and patient. A doctor is expected to terminate the professional relationship if an intimate relationship develops. However, that alone may not be enough to prevent unethical behavior and lawsuits.
Either way, a victim should rest assured that no form of professional therapy will ever include sex. If you feel that your therapist or doctor has violated your trust by touching you inappropriately or making sexually related suggestions, you may be eligible to file a sexual harassment complaint against him or her.
What is Doctor, Psychologist or Psychotherapist Sexual Harassment?
California law makes any form of sexual contact between a physical or mental health professional illegal and unethical. This law does not only apply to current patients, but it also extends to patients who have terminated therapy for up to two years. Therapists and doctors are responsible for avoiding sexual intimacy in doctor-patient relationships, and they are trained to handle patients' desires and sexual attractions.
Therapists are trained to understand the types of behavior that is inappropriate and may be harmful to their patients. If a doctor or therapist exploits a patient in order to fulfill his or her own desires, or takes advantage of a patient's trust, it may result in a revocation of his or her professional license.
The reason for this law is that once a sexual involvement occurs, it puts the patient's treatment or therapy on the backburner, which can set the patient back. Individuals who suffer sexual harassment at the hands of a doctor or therapist often end up suffering long-lasting emotional effects long after the abuse has ended. It can disrupt or even ruin family life as well as friendships and a general trust in people in the caring professions.
Sexual harassment or misconduct by a physician on mental health professional in the workplace towards his or her employees. is any unwelcome sexual behavior, which can take many forms:
- Quid pro quo harassment whereby a physician requests sexual favors in exchange for job-related benefits.
- Hostile workplace harassment involves sexual harassment that makes it difficult for a reasonable man or woman to maintain productivity.
Behaviors that were once considered acceptable towards women, are no longer tolerated by the law. In 1991, the federal court adopted the "reasonable woman" standard which determines the behaviors that constitute sexual harassment. However, sexual harassment laws do not only apply to behaviors from men toward women, but also to women's behaviors toward men, and between same sex individuals.
In recent years, there has been an increase in accusations of improper conduct during physical examinations. Most often, these examinations took place when no chaperone was present. Naturally, physicians would vehemently deny the accusations.
Abuse often takes place under the guise of medical care. Some examples of inappropriate conduct by a medical professional that may constitute misuse of power or inappropriate behavior include:
- A violation of a patient's consumer rights.
- Using or providing alcohol or drugs during sessions.
- Supporting or suggesting isolation from the patient's social support systems, thus increasing his or her dependency on the doctor.
- Bartering goods or services for therapy, or hiring the patient to Work for the medical practitioner.
Special treatment is often a warning sight of misconduct, and some of the warning signs may include:
- Relying on the patient for emotional or personal support.
- Confiding in the patient about work problems, the therapist's love life and other personal information.
- Accepting or giving significant gifts.
- Changing the office's business practices to accommodate late appointments when nobody else is around or offering sessions away from the office.
- Inviting the patient to any social activities or on dates.
- Declaring feelings to a patient.
Sexual exploitation or harassment usually starts off subtly. It may be confusing to the patient, but it will often feel uncomfortable. Some warning signs may include:
- Looking at the patient in a seductive way.
- Sharing sexual stories or jokes.
- Excessively discussing the doctor's relationships or sex life.
- Inappropriate touching, such as sitting very close, holding the patient, initiating hugging, or lying down next to the patient.
According to California law, any form of sexual contact, including sexual relations, sexual misconduct, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation between a patient and therapist is not only unprofessional, but it is also unethical and illegal. Guidelines for inappropriate conduct towards patients is set forth in the following Business and Professions Code sections of California's law:
- and 4999.90(k).
It defines sexual contact as touching someone's intimate parts, as well as sexual intercourse. Touching may be direct skin-to-skin contact, or through clothing. Intimate parts refer to the sexual organs, groin, buttocks, anus, or female breasts.
Sexual exploitation refers to any sexual contact between a doctor or therapist and his or her current or former patients under any circumstances, and includes oral copulation, sodomy or sexual intercourse. Sexual misconduct refers to unprofessional, unethical and illegal behavior which may include:
- verbal suggestions
- or kissing.
Examples of sexual harassment committed by a doctor or similar medical professional include, but are not limited to:
- false diagnosis in order to require unnecessary visits.
- filing short prescriptions to require patients to return for additional, medically unnecessary examinations or appointments;
- failure to offer a patient a gown after instructing him or her to remove all their clothing;
- inappropriate physical contact or medically unnecessary touching;
- taking medically unnecessary photographs of the patient's genitalia;
- comments with sexual connotations, including those that are racist or sexual in nature.
Help: I Have Been Sexually Harassed by My Doctor, Psychologist or Psychiatrist
It is not unusual for a patient who has been sexually harassed by a doctor or therapist to feel confused, responsible or guilty. The patient may experience mixed feelings toward the therapist, including anger, betrayal, love and protectiveness. At the same time, it is common to feel overwhelmed, depressed or to have obsessive thoughts.
The first step in dealing with the situation, is to put an end to the relationship. Next, you must consider how you wish to handle the situation. Even if you desired the sexual intimacy or relationship with your doctor or therapist, it was his or her responsibility to keep it professional.
Ultimately, sexual harassment by a doctor, therapist or psychologist amounts to a betrayal of trust in the patient, at the relationship between the individual and the medical professional, and the institution. They should be held responsible for their actions and for the harm inflicted on the patient, as should their place of work.
If you have become a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of your doctor or therapist, you should seek urgent professional help. There are many places where you can turn to get the help you need, including:
- Professional Associations - Each profession in the medical and mental health field belongs to at least one professional association which can explain your rights in terms of reporting appropriate behavior and refer you to a new doctor, psychologist or psychotherapist.
- Crisis Centers for Sexual Assault - Trained staff can provide you with information regarding the appropriate behavior to expect from therapists, as well as access to crisis services. They can also explain your rights in terms of reporting the incident.
- Licensing Boards - The Department of Consumer Affairs can explain your rights and explain the procedure for filing a complaint.
Sexual misconduct must be reported as soon as possible because strict time limits apply to reporting sexual harassment through any of the options below:
- Professional Association Action filed with the ethics committee that oversees the professional association to which the doctor or therapist belongs.
- Administrative Action filing with the appropriate professional licensing board.
- Criminal Action filing with local law enforcement.
- Civil Action lawsuit with your sexual harassment attorney of choice.
A civil attorney who specializes in sexual harassment with experience in medical malpractice can help obtain justice and financial damages for the victim from facilities that are aware - or should be aware - that they employ sexual predators. Some entities fail to perform sufficient background checks before employing doctors or therapists.
Sometimes, a facility may become aware of warning signs that one of their professionals is a predator, but they ignore the facts and keep the dangerous individual in their employ. Inadequate supervision creates ample opportunities for the employee to sexually harass patients. In these cases, the employer can easily be held responsible for the emotionally devastating damages that the employee has inflicted on the patient.
Cases of medical misconduct or sexual harassment at the hands of a doctor, psychologist or allied professional tend to be highly sensitive. It requires in-depth investigation and witness corroboration.
A professional Sexual Harassment Lawyer with extensive experience in prosecuting civil sexual assault claims against medical professionals in California can help you obtain justice and monetary damages. We can help you find help to deal with the devastating long-term effects of sexual harassment, while we fight fearlessly to protect your legal rights.
Let Sexual Harassment Attorney help you bring justice to your abuser by exposing and punishing the unlawful sexual conduct. Our experienced attorneys have handled cases of sexual harassment by doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists across California and we can help you too. Call 800-905-1856 now to schedule an appointment with one of our senior partners.