A $45 million sexual harassment lawsuit against a dancing TikTok doctor spotlights what it called a failing by the university where he was a resident. It may also have far-reaching implications for emergency physician Esther Choo, MD, MPH, who was alleged not to have reported the doctor's harassment, and for the advocacy group she helped create, Time's Up Healthcare.
The plaintiff in the case, identified only as an employee of the Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System in Oregon, is seeking a monetary judgment from Jason Campbell, MD, and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) of $4.5 million and punitive damages from Dr. Campbell of $40.5 million, according to the suit.
Dr. Campbell had made a name for himself as the TikTok Doc with dance videos that garnered national attention. His TikTok account and website have since been deleted.
The 39-page sexual assault complaint against the university and Dr. Campbell, a former anesthesiology resident at OHSU, described ongoing harassment by him and the institution's inability or unwillingness to respond to the issue in a timely manner. (Case No. 3:21-cv-311, U.S. District Court, Feb. 26, 2021; http://bit.ly/3rA7OdA.)
The suit names several physicians, including Lalena Yarris, MD, the emergency medicine residency program director, and Dr. Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at OHSU. (http://bit.ly/TimesUpHC.) Her response to the physician's reporting of the assaults described in the suit has sparked condemnation on social media, leading to resignations from the advocacy group by some of its most vocal leaders. (MedPage Today. March 8, 2021; https://bit.ly/3l0FMW3.)
Time's Up Response
Tina Tchen, the president and CEO of the TIME'S UP Foundation, said in a statement, “First and foremost, TIME'S UP is in solidarity with the survivor in her decision to share her story. Coming forward takes tremendous strength and courage, and often comes at great professional and personal cost. She should be heard and treated with respect as she pursues justice.
“While Dr. Esther Choo is mentioned in the complaint, it is important to clarify that she is neither a defendant nor a party to the case,” she said. “Because Dr. Choo is at most a witness to these events and may have to testify about them, it is not appropriate for Dr. Choo or TIME'S UP to comment further on matters in litigation.
“We wanted to reiterate that TIME'S UP remains committed to addressing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in health care and across industries. We remain supportive of survivors and will continue our mission to fight for safer, more equitable workplaces.” (March 4, 2021; http://bit.ly/3rvloPn.)
OHSU also released a statement saying it “does not condone [the] behavior” described in the lawsuit. “We are continuously working to evolve our culture, policies and practices to provide an environment where all learners, employees, patients and visitors feel safe and welcome,” the statement said. “We take our role seriously in being part of the change that needs to happen across our country to end discrimination and power dynamics that allow for harassment. We remain committed to these ideals and will continue to prioritize them as a public leader in health care, education and research.” (March 2, 2021; http://bit.ly/3chRZS3.)
OHSU said in its statement that its Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity department received the plaintiff's complaint on April 17, 2020, and removed Dr. Campbell from clinical duties and excluded him from campus and contact with the plaintiff. The university's investigation concluded that he had violated its harassment policy and code of conduct, and referred Dr. Campbell for dismissal. He resigned instead, said OHSU, which said it reported its findings to the University of Florida, where Dr. Campbell had transferred to complete his residency.
The plaintiff, who is identified only as a VA employee, said in the suit that Dr. Campbell's harassment began in January 2020 as text and video messages and sexually charged social media messages. He sent the plaintiff an Instagram video message that month showing his erection. In March, Dr. Campbell went to the plaintiff's office area, snuck up behind her, and without consent, “pushed his body and his erection forcibly onto the plaintiff's backside, pushing her into the desk in front of her,” according to the suit.
The next day, Dr. Campbell messaged her, “I'm feeling lucky about another hug from my fave ED star,” and “Are you home or still here? I'll get my hug anywhere.” And then, “I just want to hug you from behind without you yelling at me.” He later attempted to invite himself to her home, the suit said.
The plaintiff reported the harassment to her supervisors on April 9, 2020, and provided screenshots of his sexual messages, the suit said, which noted that the VA hospital told Dr. Campbell and his supervisor of the complaint. The plaintiff said in the suit that she told an OHSU assistant professor of the ongoing harassment, and learned it was “the second time that a woman reported to them that Dr. Campbell had engaged in a sexual assault.”
The assistant professor, who is not named, did not report the matter, the suit said. When the plaintiff contacted the alleged prior victim, the woman told her that Dr. Campbell asked her to use her hand to stimulate him, according to the suit. When the woman tried to leave, she said he pushed her against the door and forced her hand on to his penis. The woman said she was fearful of Dr. Campbell and afraid of making him angry, the suit said.
The plaintiff told OHSU's Title IX coordinator Laura Stadum, PhD, and the VA hospital's police detective about the harassment on April 17, the suit said. OHSU began an investigation into the plaintiff's allegations, and she provided the investigators with evidence, according to the suit, which also said OHSU investigators reported that “Dr. Campbell claimed to have destroyed his electronic messages.”
OHSU said on Aug. 17 that the investigation had concluded that Dr. Campbell had sent the sexual electronic messages, including the picture of his erection through his scrub pants, according to the suit. It also said the inquiry found that the plaintiff had made it clear she was not interested in sex or romance with Dr. Campbell. The investigators also corroborated her claim that Dr. Campbell had pressed against her without consent, and that these activities violated the institution's policies and code of conduct, the lawsuit said. After the investigation, OHSU offered “‘awareness campaigns’ and trainings while failing to hold perpetrators, or their enablers, accountable,” according to the suit.
The plaintiff was not happy with the results of the investigation, said her attorney Michael Fuller. “They let him resign,” he said. The Oregonian reported that Dr. Campbell was put on leave by the University of Florida College of Medicine after administrators “recently learned” of the harassment. (March 2, 2021; http://bit.ly/3t4IpsM.) Dr. Campbell could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Choo Linked to Case
The suit said the plaintiff had also reported Dr. Campbell's harassment to Dr. Choo, a Title IX mandatory reporter at OHSU and a well-known advocate for ending sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The plaintiff sent the details of the problem in writing to Dr. Choo, who texted her, “Ugh, I'm giving him feedback,” the suit said.
The suit noted that the plaintiff also told Dr. Choo of Dr. Campbell's harassment of an OHSU employee who feared reporting, and Dr. Choo messaged her, “It's never worth it. Never.” Given screenshot evidence that an OHSU assistant professor had been told of two incidents of sexual misconduct by Dr. Campbell, Dr. Choo responded, “OMG How should we handle,” the suit said, adding that Dr. Choo offered to sit down with Dr. Campbell or have his program director do so but did not report it herself.
Emergency Medicine News asked Dr. Choo to comment, and she said she could not at this time, but had passed the request to OHSU Strategic Communications, which did not respond by press time.
Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for Dr. Choo and a crisis manager in Washington, DC, told The Oregonian that the “survivor did not inform Dr. Choo of key details about the behavior at issue here when it happened. As a result, Dr. Choo was not aware of the full scope of Dr. Campbell's wrongdoing. Even so, when the survivor raised the issue with Dr. Choo, Dr. Choo acted in a way that was completely consistent with her values, offering to do everything she could to support Plaintiff, while respecting her friend's agency in making decisions about what to do. ... If this litigation moves forward, documentary evidence will demonstrate conclusively that Dr. Choo's conduct could not have been more different from what has been suggested about Dr. Choo in the past few days.” (March 8, 2021; http://bit.ly/3ry88cu.)
Dr. Choo is quoted on the Time's Up Healthcare website as saying, “To all those affected by harassment across the health professions, please know this: TIME'S UP Healthcare is committed to fighting on your behalf and to ensure your concerns are not ignored or forgotten—today, tomorrow, and as long as it takes.” (http://bit.ly/30shScI.)
According to the lawsuit, Dr. Choo posed with Dr. Campbell for a photo on June 5 and June 12, and he challenged her to help him get more than 50,000 views of one of his videos. On Oct. 1, Dr. Choo publicly engaged Dr. Campbell in a Twitter fundraiser. When the plaintiff objected to Dr. Choo's tacitly condoning sexual misconduct, Dr. Choo responded, “You never told me about the assault of you,” the suit said. The plaintiff retorted that she had told her. Dr. Choo also said in that text exchange, “I don't need policing by White women,” according to a screenshot included in the lawsuit. Dr. Choo was also involved in a Twitterstorm in June 2019 after tweeting, “White people can be exhausting. Just an observation.” (https://bit.ly/3rBhpk3.)
The suit also says that Dr. Yarris, a professor of emergency medicine and the residency program director, participated in a TikTok dance video with Dr. Campbell in late March 2020. The plaintiff reported Dr. Campbell's sexual misconduct to Dr. Yarris on March 31, 2020, but the suit says Dr. Yarris took no action and starred in a second TikTok video with Dr. Campbell on Nov. 3, 2020.
After the investigation concluded, OHSU agreed to pay for mental health therapy for the plaintiff, but then refused because “OHSU's sexual misconduct fund had run out of money,” according to the suit, which also said an OHSU attorney said the university “would pay for medical treatment on the condition that plaintiff sign a full release of claims.”
This was not the first time the plaintiff had been harassed. From June 2017 to October 2018, she was harassed by the former OHSU chair of emergency medicine, O. John Ma, MD. The suit said the plaintiff reported the misconduct, but it was not investigated: “Dr. Ma's harassment of plaintiff was so fierce that, at one point, OHSU put a ‘no contact order’ in place, which Dr. Ma promptly violated by contacting plaintiff. When plaintiff told him not to contact her, he said he wanted to die.”
A year after the plaintiff's complaints, approximately 50 more complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation were filed against Dr. Ma. The hospital's leaders told the complainants that their allegations were unsubstantiated, the suit said, and Dr. Ma resigned March 3, 2019.
At least 10 members of Time's Up Healthcare organization announced their resignations on social media, expressing disappointment with the organization. (MedPage Today. March 8, 2021; https://bit.ly/3l0FMW3.) Dozens of OHSU employees also made public their dissatisfaction with the handling of the sexual assault case at a rally on campus on March 3, 2021. The plaintiff told The Lund Report, a health care publication in Portland, that the support shown for her at the rally “brought her to tears.” (March 4, 2021; http://bit.ly/3qqU4Ad.)