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UNB faces class-action lawsuit for ‘systemic failure’ to protect students from alleged sexual assault

Psychiatrist at student health centre is accused of inappropriate sexual touching

Hadeel Ibrahim · CBC News · Posted: Apr 12, 2021 6:10 PM AT | Last Updated: 3 hours ago

Psychiatrist Manoj Bhargava

Psychiatrist Manoj Bhargava

Psychiatrist Dr. Manoj Bhargava was working part time at the University of New Brunswick’s Student Health Centre and is named alongside the university in the class-action application. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)
This story has been updated with an explanation for why the plaintiff’s name is being reported.

A Fredericton law firm has filed a class-action application against the University of New Brunswick after multiple students said a psychiatrist at the student health centre sexually assaulted them.

Dr. Manoj Bhargava, who worked part time at the Student Health Centre at UNB, was suspended by the College of Physicians and Surgeons last year after the college received several misconduct complaints against him.

Since the suspension in November, the college has received a total of 18 sexual assault complaints against Bhargava from individual patients, most of them students, according to college registrar Dr. Ed Schollenberg.

Bhargava and UNB were both named in the class-action lawsuit application filed Monday by the plaintiff Morgan Jean Wilcox.

Erika Hachey, injury and insurance law partner at Moss Hachey Law, said the application is filed against Bhargava for sexual assault of various students who attended UNB, and against UNB “for the systemic failures to protect their students from Dr. Bhargava and his behaviour.”

She called the victims a “particularly vulnerable group of students.”

Wilcox filed the suit under her own name, which is not under a publication ban because this is not a criminal matter. Hachey said that in a class action, only the representative plaintiff is named unless other plaintiffs choose to share their names publicly. In criminal cases involving sexual assault, the complainant’s name is protected under law and not published.

Fredericton psychiatrist Dr. Manoj Bhargava was suspended by the College of Physicians and Surgeons in November 2020 and is named in a class-action lawsuit against him and the University of New Brunswick. (Facebook)
She said her firm decided to spearhead the class-action suit after Wilcox contacted them and asked to be the representative of the suit.

“She was a very recent victim of Dr. Bhargava at the Student Health Centre and speaking with her, she was very adamant she wanted to start a class action on behalf of all of the students that were affected by this,” Hachey said.

The statement of claim alleges Bhargava prescribed medication he said would affect the patient’s heart rate and blood pressure. Then he would frequently ask her to remove articles of underwear and clothing so he could take her blood pressure and heart rate and used “non-consensual sexual contact” to do so.

Hachey said the alleged sexual abuse was reported to UNB various times, but the details of when and how have not been outlined in the statement of claim.

Schollenberg said the complaints the college received contain almost identical allegations, where patients describe Bhargava asking them to remove under garments and then touching their breasts while checking their heartbeats or taking their blood pressure.

“More or less, slight variations, but generally all are pretty much the same thing,” he said.

The allegations have not been proven in court, and a date is yet to be set to hear the case. UNB has not yet filed a statement of defence.

Hachey said that once a statement of defence is filed, the court can have a certification hearing. Only if the case has been certified can it proceed as a class-action suit.

Referring complaints to police
Schollenberg said the college involved the police recently, after suspending Bhargava.

“It became apparent that there may be more to this,” he said.

He said the college asked some of the 18 complainants if they were interested in speaking to the police and passed on their information to the Fredericton Police Force if they said yes.

Fredericton psychiatrist suspended by College of Physicians and Surgeons
Alycia Bartlett, spokesperson for the Fredericton Police Force, would not confirm whether the police are investigating Bhargava.

“In general, we would not confirm whether a specific individual was the subject of a police investigation until such time as charges are laid in court, or there are operational reasons otherwise,” she said in an email.

One complainant on the record
Hachey said Wilcox is the only person whose allegations are detailed in the statement of claim, but the class action has been filed on behalf of everyone who’s experienced sexual assault by Bhargava. She said the firm is still trying to contact people affected.

“We have currently our representative plaintiff, but that’s all you need to start a class action,” she said.

Hachey said the plaintiff is “looking for action be taken on behalf of the students who had this happen to them and … for UNB to recognize the failures of the Dr. Bhargava and of themselves that led to the sexual assault of all these students.”

Hachey said the timeline has not been outlined yet.

CBC did not get a response from UNB or Bhargava by publication time.