Women Sue USC Over Handling of Claims of Abuse by Gynecologist

Alicia Ault

May 24, 2018

At least seven women have sued the University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles, alleging that the institution knowingly allowed George Tyndall, MD, to continue to practice medicine at its Engemann Student Health Clinic despite years of complaints that alleged inappropriate conduct.

The suits were reported by various news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, which first broke the story about Tyndall's alleged behavior. Those behaviors included inserting his fingers into patients' vaginas prior to using a speculum, taking photographs of their genitals, and making lewd comments.

Dr George Tyndall

USC emailed a statement to Medscape Medical News stating, "We are aware of the lawsuits," and added, "We are focused on ensuring the safety and well-being of our students and providing support to those affected."

In a message posted to a USC website on the Tyndall issue, USC Provost Michael Quick, PhD, said, "I have seen media reports allege that the university leadership knew about Dr Tyndall's misbehavior for a long time, and that we covered it up for the sake of the USC brand. This is absolutely untrue. It is unthinkable. It is true that our system failed, but it is important that you know that this claim of a cover-up is patently false. We would never knowingly put students in harm's way."

The university also acknowledged to Medscape Medical News that it had fired William Leavitt, MD, the lead physician, and Tammie Akiyoshi, RN, the clinical director at the student health clinic. "In light of newly received patient complaints indicating the extent of George Tyndall's inappropriate conduct, the university has decided to remove Tyndall's direct supervisor and another senior supervisor from the student health center," said Todd R. Dickey, JD, USC senior vice president for administration, in a statement to Medscape Medical News. "The university does not take personnel decisions lightly, but will hold people accountable for their supervision and inaction."

USC has appointed a new director of student health, Sarah Van Orman, MD, according to the statement by Quick.

The school also announced a new "action plan" that is intended to "revisit our core values, revise our existing employment policies, and improve our campus culture, as well as to implement a major restructuring of a number of the university's operations." A newly established President's Campus Culture Commission will assess the execution of the action plan.

The lawsuits are the latest news in a rapidly unfolding story involving Tyndall, who is 71 years old. The LA Times published a lengthy report on the allegations against the physician on May 15. Aware that the article was about to be published, USC released details about what it knew about the allegations regarding Tyndall, and when it knew it. The university issued a letter on May 15 to more than 350,000 current and former students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff.

"While we have no evidence of criminal conduct, we have no doubt that Dr Tyndall's behavior was completely unacceptable. It was a clear violation of our Principles of Community, and a shameful betrayal of our values," said USC President C. L. Max Nikias, PhD, in the letter.

This is the second time in a year that the LA Times has reported on problems concerning a medical official at USC. In July 2017, the newspaper revealed that Carmen Puliafito, MD, who had been dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine from 2007 to March 2016, had repeatedly used illegal drugs. The university suspended him soon after the report.

Some 200 professors have now called on USC to fire Nikias, according to the LA Times.

Medical Board Investigating

Nikias said that USC filed a complaint about Tyndall to the Medical Board of California on March 9, 2018 — long after Tyndall had been investigated by USC and had been forced out of his job at the student health center. The medical board said it is investigating Tyndall, but spokesman Carlos Villatoro told Medscape Medical News, "There's not a lot we can say about the investigation because our investigations are confidential."

Tyndall received his California medical license in 1985. It expires in 2020. He lists no board certifications. According to the LA Times, Tyndall began working at USC's student health center in 1989.

Although complaints and concerns about Tyndall were reported early on, USC did not investigate him until 2013, after complaints about racist comments. Around that time, then executive director of the student clinic, Lawrence Neinstein, MD, spoke to Tyndall about behavior that had been reported by colleagues, including taking photos of patients' cervixes and genitalia.

In May, Tyndall told the LA Times that he agreed to stop taking the photos at that time. Medscape Medical News was unable to contact Tyndall for comment before publication.

Between 2000 and 2014, Neinstein received at least eight complaints about Tyndall, including allegations of racist remarks and questionable clinical practices, according to the LA Times.

The gynecologist was allowed to continue practicing. In 2016, USC began investigating complaints from some of the clinic's medical assistants, who said he conducted pelvic examinations by first inserting his fingers and then using a speculum. An outside gynecology expert told the university that "this could be considered an acceptable practice," according to USC's account. But MDReview said the practice was outdated and did not represent current standard of care.

Tyndall told the LA Times that he used his fingers as a way to identify women with vaginismus and to assess the health of pelvic floor muscles.

Some of Tyndall's colleagues told the LA Times that they had reported to university officials in 2016 that they had found a cache of photos of cervixes and female genitals, some with identifying information, in Tyndall's office. Tyndall told the LA Times that he had taken the photos with permission and that all of the photos were clinical in nature.

Hundreds of Women Coming Forward

But the discovery — and growing pressure from staff members who complained to various officials at USC — prompted the university to take action. It notified Tyndall that he was being terminated. USC said that Tyndall contested his termination and threatened to sue, claiming "the university retaliated against him for complaints he had made about alleged quality of care issues, as well as because of his age and gender."

The university said it settled with him, giving him severance. His resignation became effective June 30, 2017. According to the LA Times, USC was required by law to notify the medical board and hospitals, but it did neither.

Tyndall accepted the severance and told USC he was retiring from medicine, but in early 2018, he asked to be reinstated at the student health center. That's when USC made a report to the medical board. "In hindsight, we should have made this report eight months earlier when he separated from the university," said Nikias, in his letter.

Villatoro, the California medical board spokesman, said that in cases in which sexual misconduct is alleged, a deputy attorney general and a sworn peace officer with the Department of Consumer Affairs Health Quality Investigations Unit immediately begin an inquiry.

If evidence gathered during the course of the investigation suggests that a physician could endanger the public were he to continue to practice, the medical board can petition an administrative law judge to restrict the physician from practicing. The board can also petition to restrict a physician's practice if he or she is facing a criminal charge.

USC said that although it has no knowledge of criminal conduct by Tyndall, "in an abundance of caution, we contacted the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office to relay this possibility." The university also contacted the Los Angeles Police Department.

USC said that since inviting the USC community to report concerns about Tyndall, it had received at least 85 responses as of May 16 to a hotline and website, half of which were anonymous. The responses were largely from former students who provided information on their experiences with Tyndall, said the university.

The LA Times reports that as of Wednesday, about 300 people have come forward with complaints about Tyndall, and more than 3000 people have signed an online petition that demands Nikias' resignation.

Tyndall told the LA Times that he had conducted appropriate medical exams and had never had any "sexual urges" toward his patients.

For more news, join us on Facebook and Twitter


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.