Jyllene Wilson is still wary of doctor’s offices and public restrooms, and whenever she’s away from home, she uses a smartphone app that can help detect hidden cameras to ensure she is safe from prying eyes.
Joshulyn L. Brown harbors a deep-seated distrust for many white-collar professionals, especially doctors and lawyers. Stazi Simmons-Gomez gets panic attacks when a male doctor enters a room to examine her, and one of Simmons-Gomez’s daughters fell into a spell of depression and began cutting herself.
The four have one thing in common: They were each patients of Nikita Levy, a Johns Hopkins gynecologist whose warm demeanor won over the trust of thousands of women, many of them poor and black. In February 2013, police discovered that Levy had been taking sexually explicit photos and videos of his patients during appointments using cameras hidden in pens and elsewhere in his exam room, and found a trove of videos and images. Levy, who began practicing with Johns Hopkins in 1988 and had served thousands of women, committed suicide days later, penning an apology note to his wife and slipping a bag of helium over his head.
Levy’s patients — 8,344 of them — filed a class-action lawsuit against Johns Hopkins, which settled in July 2014 for $190 million. The women say the impact of the trauma is nearly immeasurable, the nightmares and lost sleep, the distrust that has driven them away from regular checkups, the panic attacks that strike out of nowhere. It is only within the past month that they learned what the settlement may entitle them to.
Irma Raker, a Maryland Court of Appeals senior judge whose long career included prosecuting sex crimes, was appointed claims adjudicator in the case. The sterile title masks the gargantuan responsibility of determining what a lifetime of suffering is worth.
What Levy did left no physical scars, resulted in no debilitating physical injury, and the women had no idea they had been violated until after Levy was caught. No one but Levy could say for certain which patients were photographed and how many times; with his death, they chose not to pursue the traumatizing task of identifying the women in the photos. Many of the factors driving the settlement amounts were subjective: Did you believe you were photographed? How did it affect your life?
“We were considering the distress and the concerns that they had about the photographs and the kind of symptoms they experienced after they learned about his arrest, the betrayal of trust that they had,” Raker said in an interview. “We cared, and we listened, and we took into account each person’s experience.”
Based on those personal assessments, each woman is set to receive between $1,750 and $26,048. A judge ordered that $32 million of the total settlement would go to attorneys for the women, according to online court records.
Jonathan Schochor, an attorney who represents the women, did not respond to requests for comment. Kim Hoppe, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said the system acted quickly to remove Levy from his practice after a co-worker discovered the photos and videos.
“That a physician would do such a thing is unimaginable. When we were informed of Dr. Levy’s actions, we acted quickly and decisively,” Hoppe said in a statement. “We have strong policies in place to protect patient privacy, but all hospitals must rely to some extent on the integrity of their caregivers. Dr. Levy breached a trust not only to his patients, but to Johns Hopkins Health System as well.”
Compensating for psychological trauma is challenging, a task devoid of the kinds of objective markers that might accompany a physical injury. How does someone put a dollar amount on a loss of dignity and trust, on humiliation and shame?
Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who has been tasked with parceling out settlements to victims in mass tragedies, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Virginia Tech massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing, said it is so difficult to determine payouts for psychological trauma that some lawyers opt not to do it at all. In such settlements, only the victims who sustained physical injuries or the families of those who died receive compensation.
In the Levy settlement, Feinberg said that “you don’t have traumatic physical injury. That means that all of the harm is psychological. Well, who proves that? How do you demonstrate a degree of harm to justify eligibility? That’s a very difficult thing to do, to calibrate the degree of psychological damage.”
A nurse referred Simmons-Gomez to Levy in 2007. There was something about his warm nature that put many women at ease.
“He reminded me of Dr. Huxtable from ‘The Cosby Show,’ ” Simmons-Gomez said.
Over time, he grew to be a confidant, someone she went to with her life’s troubles. When Simmons-Gomez was a student at Morgan State University and was struggling with a biochemistry course, he tutored her by phone and during appointments, when she came in with her class notes.
Simmons-Gomez took her two teenage daughters to Levy for checkups, a decision that haunts her.
“That guilt of putting your innocent daughters in the hands of a monster, it just makes me sick,” Simmons-Gomez said.
She believes that Levy photographed her, although she won’t ever know for sure. She recalls him using a penlight during his exams and believes it is the same pen that police later determined was a secret recording device. She recalls him turning on Eric Clapton’s “Layla” after exams and doing a silly dance. In hindsight, she believes Levy was celebrating after he captured images of her body.
When she learned that Levy had been arrested, Simmons-Gomez cried and began vomiting.
“They will never be able to fathom what we’ve all been through,” Simmons-Gomez said through tears. “Sleepless nights, missing work, your body at work but your brain elsewhere . . . we lived through hell, and some of us are still going through hell.”
Simmons-Gomez received $26,048 in the settlement.
To determine how much each woman would receive, Raker assembled a team — many with training in psychology and social work — to come up with a list of questions that would attempt to capture the range of the women’s experiences. They contacted the victims and conducted lengthy, confidential phone interviews with those who were willing. They also asked women about their lives before they met Levy, with the idea that some experiences — such as a sexual assault — could have amplified their trauma.
“The injury that we considered was the patient or class member’s perception, belief or knowledge that they were photographed,” Raker said. “When we go to a gynecologist or an obstetrician, it’s so private and it’s so intimate, and it’s not a very comfortable experience. And then to learn that your doctor was taking photographs of some people and he could be taking photographs of you — you don’t know whether he did it or not — it evokes different kinds of emotions in different people.”
Raker placed the women in four categories based on the severity of their “negative experiences, perceptions and symptoms.” Those assigned to the lowest category are set to receive $1,750; those in the highest, $26,048.
Like Simmons-Gomez, Brown, too, sometimes replays memories of her visits to Levy, and she is overwhelmed with shame. Brown went to Levy for a decade beginning in the late 1980s, and she said that he used an unusual number of lights during exams. She vomited when she learned of Levy’s arrest, and she later went to counseling to deal with her strong emotions.
Authorities have told Brown that the images, videos and hard drives are locked away in a vault where no one can see them. But she can’t shake the fear that she was photographed and that images of her are somewhere on the Internet, that people are looking at photos of her body.
“That’s always going to be in the back of my head,” Brown said. “It’s a sick feeling. I’ve been exposed in ways that I can’t explain . . . and no amount of money can fix what’s going on.”
She was awarded $20,001.
Wilson considered Levy like family. She sent him Christmas presents, had his personal cellphone number and confided in him about her life and marriage. When she lost a pregnancy, he held her hand as she wept. She defended the doctor even after his arrest, and when he committed suicide, she called Levy’s brother to offer her condolences.
“I gave him my condolences because, at that time, I’m still in denial that this man who held my hand and cried with me and my husband could do something like that,” said Wilson, who also referred friends and family members to Levy. “This is someone I trusted with everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything.”
After Levy’s arrest, Wilson was too shaken to see a doctor and only returned when she ended up in the emergency room to have her gallbladder removed. She recently started seeing a gynecologist again, and when she enters a doctor’s office, she sweeps her phone across the room, using an app that aims to detect hidden cameras.
Wilson was awarded $20,001.
Simmons-Gomez said she is appealing her settlement to seek more money: “There’s no way in hell $26,000 — that’s the most a person can get — should suffice the amount of pain that was afflicted upon the victims and minor children.”
Raker said she aimed for fairness, but it did not surprise her that women emerged from the process dissatisfied.
“There was no model for this,” Raker said. “It was important for each person to be treated individually, for that patient to know that we believed each person was an individual.”
Raker and two other judges are in the midst of hearing appeals from women who are personally pleading their cases. Even Simmons-Gomez, who said she is fighting for a six-figure settlement, said nothing can restore her dignity, her sense of security.
“There’s no amount of money that constitute what we all went through,” she said.