OLYMPIA, Wash. — Cheryl Riley of Enchelium, Wash., said she became so depressed over the last two years she considered suicide. She said her hopelessness stemmed from a state-ordered medical exam by a state-paid psychiatrist in 2021.
“He’s a psychiatrist and he knows how to mess with people’s minds and he messed with my mind and that hurt me,” Riley said. “It was really hard. It was a long period where I didn’t want to (go on).”
Riley said Dr. Douglas Robinson sexually harassed her during the exam by asking her questions about her sex life, including wanting to know when she’d last had sex; questions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with her 2018 workplace injury which gave her a concussion.
Now Riley is suing the doctor and the state agency who hired him; the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). The complaint states Riley suffered “embarrassment, confusion, humiliation, distress, loss of benefits and emotional harm,” and that L&I “inflicted harm” by “knowingly allowing the doctor’s behavior to go unabated.”
“They shamed me. They shamed me for being a woman. They shamed me for being me. I really resented that,” Riley said.
Dr. Robinson was one of the psychiatrists that was hired most often by L&I in workplace injury cases. Since 2014 L&I received at least 16 complaints about “inappropriate,” “unprofessional,” and “sexually intrusive” lines of questioning by the doctor. Injured workers reported the doctor asked about the dates and frequency of sexual relations and favorite sexual positions, none of which had anything to do with their injuries, yet L&I failed to take disciplinary action against him, records show.
“I realized he sexually harassed me,” said Riley. “He asked me ‘When was the last time you had sexual relations?'” Riley said. “I said ‘Well, it’s been a long time. I’ve been divorced for a lot of years.’ And then he got angry. He looked at me really hard and said: ‘When was the last time you had sexual relations with someone?’ And I got scared. I got really scared of him.”
Riley issued a complaint to L&I. State investigators said they “could not substantiate the allegations,” and closed the case. None of the complaints over the years against Dr. Robinson were upheld by the state.
Riley's attorney said the lawsuit is meant to bring accountability to the doctor and L&I.
"Hopefully, this litigation will advance not just my client’s personal cause but will also protect other Washington workers," said Seattle-based attorney Nicole Gainey. "No one will hold Dr. Robinson responsible for what he did to Ms. Riley – and to others. There will be no accountability for (L&I) ... This failure to thoroughly investigate allegations against its doctors puts Washington workers like my client in harm’s way and it needs to stop."
The Washington State Medical Commission, which licenses physicians and surgeons, closed two investigations stemming from Riley's complaint. The Commission said its panel noted "the physician's retirement from the active practice of medicine," and that "there was a significant gap between the physician's impression of the examination and your impression."
Robinson still has an active license to practice medicine in the state of Washington.
Riley said that’s one of the reasons she filed the lawsuit.
“I said ‘Enough. No more.’ Because nothing happened, I felt like something had to be done," Riley said. "(L&I) had a duty and a responsibility to protect me. It was their job, as an injured worker, to take care of me and provide me with good care. And they didn’t do it."
Officials at L&I said their first concern is the well-being of injured workers.
"It’s important to the department that workers feel safe during examinations. We take complaints about independent medical exams and that process very seriously. Dr. Robinson has not conducted an exam for injured workers on L&I’s behalf since May of 2022. As a result of the complaints against him, we’ve reformed the way we look into complaints about independent medical examiners," said Tim Church, assistant director, web and communication services for L&I.
Accused doctor denies all allegations
“I strive to be as polite as I can. What (Ms. Riley) is saying is very different from what happened. That did not happen,” Dr. Robinson said in 2022. “I have a strict policy that anything pertaining to sex is (off limits). I stay away (from that topic) like the plague. I have never asked anyone intrusive sexual questions.”
Robinson said injured workers and their attorneys are most likely motivated to submit false accusations because they have an incentive to discredit him. As a state-hired medical examiner, he said, workers often don’t like his opinions because they can affect their benefits.
“When some workers read my opinion, they’re angry. (Then) they allege comments about sexual matters,” Robinson said.
Robinson's attorney said his client looks forward to his day in court.
"This case will likely be tried to a jury and rather than comment about it now, we will let the evidence do the talking in a courtroom. Dr. Robinson looks forward to a jury of his peers fairly evaluating all the admitted evidence and not just the assertions of the plaintiff," said Robinson's Tacoma-based attorney, James Meade.
Labor and Industries changing complaint process
In 2022, Brenda Heilman, deputy assistant director of insurance services for L&I, said this case has led them to revamp the complaint process. She said they were using a system of reviewing files, instead of interviewing all parties and looking at the history of complaints.
“Under the old process (the pattern of complaints) wasn’t considered. I’m sorry to say that,” Heilman said. “That’s the message I really want people to know is that we’re making changes. We want to make sure people are contacted when they have a complaint, that they have a chance to tell their whole story about what happened.”
Riley’s lawsuit asks for a judgment for “physical, mental, and emotional injury.” It also asks for the reform of L&I policies that “led to the harm suffered by (Riley) to prevent further damage to Washington’s injured workers in the future.”
“I consider myself a strong person and I went down that hole. And I climbed back out. But there are people that might not be able to, and that’s wrong,” Riley said.
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