SEATTLE — One of the most often hired psychiatrists by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in workplace injury cases received more than a dozen complaints about “inappropriate,” “unprofessional” and “sexually intrusive” lines of questioning during state-paid exams.
In the last five years, injured workers reported that Seattle-based psychiatrist Dr. Douglas Robinson 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.
Injured workers and their attorneys said psychological exams with the independent medical examiner (IME) “traumatized” and “frightened” them. IMEs are hired by L&I to conduct medical-legal exams to help ascertain if worker compensation claims should be accepted.
“I realized he sexually harassed me,” said 70-year-old Cheryl Riley of Inchelium, Washington.
Riley was injured in a 2018 on-the-job accident at Washington State University (WSU). Her injury occurred when a 25-pound window shade fell and struck her in the head in a WSU classroom. Her doctors diagnosed her with a severe concussion that caused “chronic neck pain, migraines and depression.”
Riley received approximately $870 per month from L&I in worker compensation benefits. In 2021, the state sent her to Robinson to assess whether the injury caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Riley said the doctor didn’t ask her about the accident or her anxiety, but he did ask about her sex life.
“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 said the experience haunts her still.
“What he did to me still lingers today,” Riley said. “I have to mentally work to not think about him and his eyes and what he said. Depression will just wash over me. I think, in some part, because I felt so helpless and vulnerable just from my head injury, and he took advantage of my pain and incapacity.”
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 Robinson were upheld by the state.
“We want [workers] to know that we really do care about their concerns,” said Brenda Heilman, deputy assistant director of insurance services for L&I. “We take complaints very seriously. It’s important to us that workers are treated with respect and feel safe at these appointments.”
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,” Robinson said. “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.
2022 complaints prompt temporary action
The most recent complaints to the state were submitted this year.
In January, an attorney reported Robinson made a “sexist” and “crude” comment during a legal proceeding on a conference call.
Seattle-based attorney Katherine Mason reported that before the deposition began, she commented that she preferred Zoom-type proceedings. She said Robinson responded in an “unbelievable” fashion.
“He said, ‘Well, I like doing these things by telephone because I’m not wearing any pants,’” Mason said. “I could not believe it.”
Robinson said the attorney is wrong.
“What she alleged is untrue,” Robinson said. “I like to study human nature, and I mentioned that an unexpected result of the pandemic is some men say they don’t wear pants on [Zoom] calls. I was musing on that phenomenon.”
Four months later, in March, an injured firefighter issued another complaint. His attorney alerted L&I that a state-ordered examination via telemedicine with Robinson began with a “jaw-dropping” photo: the doctor on the screen without clothes on from the waist up.
“He had his shirt off and my client looked at that and said, ‘What are you doing?’” said David Harkness, a Lakewood-based attorney representing the firefighter.
“It was outrageous. It was unfathomable, really," Harkness said. “And my client is a 40-year firefighter. He’s seen everything under the sun, and it was enough for him to be very upset.”
After the two complaints in 2022, L&I’s Provider Quality and Compliance division put Robinson on a “temporarily unavailable” status, which means he was unable to perform any medical exams for the state while they investigated.
In a March 31 letter to Robinson, an L&I official said they’d received “information that appears to substantiate a pattern of unprofessional and concerning behavior that…lacks respect and dignity for our injured workers.”
Robinson told the state and KING 5 he was “fully dressed” during the appointment but unbeknownst to him, the telehealth program took the shirtless photo of him when he logged in “four hours earlier.”
In a letter to the state to defend himself, Robinson wrote, “These incidents have alarmed and embarrassed me, and I am committed to being more conscientious in the future. I take pride in the diligence and honesty with which I approach my responsibilities, as well as the empathy with which I regard injured workers. I would be dismayed if it were to end under this cloud of unfortunate incidents.”
Robinson’s business relationship with L&I didn’t end. Three weeks later, the state changed his status back to “active” after they were unable to corroborate the allegations.
L&I changes complaint process
Heilman, of L&I, said this case 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.”
On Sept. 26, Robinson advised L&I that he was retiring. He is no longer listed as an approved medical exam provider on the state’s list.
“The outcome we wanted was that Dr. Robinson not be conducting IMEs anymore. We got to that place,” Heilman said.
Advocates and injured workers said the state should have taken action and put injured workers first years ago. Between 2015 and 2020, L&I paid Robinson $1.44 million for examining injured workers, according to state financial records. Of 40 psychiatrists hired to conduct IMEs in that time period, only four others were hired more often than Robinson.
“It was just easier all these years to look the other way. And I think his reports have been useful to [L&I] to avoid paying benefits to injured workers,” said Mason, the Seattle attorney.
Four months after the medical exam with Robinson, Riley, the worker injured at WSU, got a letter from the state alerting her that her benefits were being cut off. Part of the decision was based on the psychiatrist’s opinion that she did not have PTSD.
“When you tell them, they don’t do anything. It’s like you don’t matter,” Riley said. “How dare they let him do this to people? And what did they do? They threw me away.”