“It’s the respect that doctors get and the assumption that they’re good people, that they’re there to help you. … You’re so vulnerable when you go to the doctor, and you’re taking off your clothes and you’re sharing information about your body. It’s so intimate. It’s so much more outrageous, in my opinion, than abuse in any other relationship.”
On August 13, four Bengali women from the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., filed a class-action lawsuit against Dr. Ferdous Khandker, alleging decades of sexual assault and harassment of dozens of women and girls under the auspices of providing medical care. The lawsuit also names defendants Western Care Medical Services P.C. and Jackson Medical, PLLC, where Khandker is a partner and practices medicine. The lawsuit came on the last day allowed by the Child Victims Act, which created a look back window to file childhood sexual abuse claims, regardless of when or how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.
The lawsuit arose out of a previous defamation lawsuit filed by Khandker. In June of 2020, women in the Bengali community in Queens publicly accused Khandker of abuse. They posted on Facebook and Instagram and created a Change.org petition calling for the revocation of Khandker’s medical license. In response, Khandker filed a defamation lawsuit on June 26 against three women who had posted allegations online.
The women sought out attorney Susan Crumiller from the law firm of Crumiller PC in Brooklyn to represent them. Crumiller, who calls her firm “the feminist litigation firm,” took the case and filed counterclaims against Khandker for sexual assault and battery, false imprisonment, medical malpractice, gender discrimination and other claims. The firm also helped survivors file complaints against Khandker with the Office of Professional Medical Conduct.
In the defamation case, once Crumiller began issuing mandatory discovery requests for information from Khandker and scheduling his deposition, Khandker refused to participate in the litigation, pleading the Fifth Amendment, so the court dismissed the lawsuit. Crumiller filed for attorney’s fees under New York’s new anti-SLAPP law, which stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation” to fight lawsuits used as a tool for intimidating and silencing criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.
The class-action lawsuit against Khandker follows on the heels of several high-profile cases of doctor sexual abuse, including former gymnastic physician Larry Nassar accused of abusing at least 332 minor girls, Ohio State University physician Richard Strauss accused of abusing at least 177 women and University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall. USC settled Tyndall’s case involving 710 women for a historic $1.2 billion.
In a national investigation of doctor sexual abuse in 2018, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered 450 cases of doctors who were brought before medical regulators or courts for sexual misconduct or sex crimes in 2016 and 2017 alone—suggesting that doctor sex abuse is a widespread problem.
On the day the class-action lawsuit against Khandker was filed, Ms. spoke with Susan Crumiller to learn more about how the case and what’s at stake.
Carrie Baker: You filed the case on behalf of four named plaintiffs and 200+ Jane Does. Has it been hard for victims to come forward with their allegations?
Susan Crumiller: There are many, many people who have made allegations, but don’t feel able to take the next step of either making contact with us directly or agreeing to pursue the case.
The biggest problem has been the victims fear of Dr. Khandker. He presents himself as an extraordinarily powerful person. Many of the people I’ve spoken to, their parents know him. Everyone in the community knows him. And these are young women, who just think of him as someone with unlimited resources and unlimited power. And many of the people we’ve spoken to are extremely afraid of retaliation by him or his agents.
Baker: How did the fact that Khandker was a doctor make it hard to report?
Crumiller: It’s the respect that doctors get and the assumption that they’re good people, that they’re there to help you. I think that can make it difficult. The abuse of power in the relationship is so extraordinary. You have to be able to trust your doctors. You’re so vulnerable when you go to the doctor, and you’re taking off your clothes and you’re sharing information about your body. It’s so intimate. It’s so much more outrageous, in my opinion, than abuse in any other relationship. I think people are so stunned and they’re like, well, if he says it’s okay, it must be okay. Especially children. Part of the reason you’re so vulnerable when you’re young is that you trust adults and you trust authority figures because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Baker: Did the fact that the women were part of a minority, immigrant community make it harder to report the abuse?
Crumiller: Very much so. This is an insular community where there is a strong stigma against speaking out against respected community elders, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse. A lot of families blame the victims, and my clients have described a widespread entitlement by Bengali men to sexually harass and abuse. Of course, that’s true everywhere, but white people like me know that we can put more faith in the systems to help us. And part of the difficulty of speaking out here is that you feel that you owe the community your loyalty, and speaking out is seen as a form of betrayal.
When Khandker first filed his defamation case, he had his friends calling up random young women to try to intimidate them and suss out info. He capitalized upon these norms—he understood they protected him.
“This is an insular community where there is a strong stigma against speaking out against respected community elders, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse. A lot of families blame the victims.”
Baker: How many people could be in the class?
Crumiller: I think the people that I’ve interacted with directly comprise a very small percentage of the people he victimized. I certainly think that there are most likely women and girls who were victimized who don’t speak English, which would just pose yet another barrier to them contacting us.
We knew of a lot of people who had experienced his abuse, or who knew somebody, or who knew somebody who knew somebody, but taking the step of reaching out to an attorney feels very very big and scary and difficult.
Baker: Are most of his victims young?
Crumiller: Mostly they are young. One of the Instagram messages that our clients got was from someone who said she was in third or fourth grade. Although a lot of people said he did this to my mom, he did this to my grandma, he did this to my aunt. There’s also a lot of non-sexual complaints about him regarding misdiagnoses, insurance fraud, and billing fraud.
Baker: Many of the allegations involve Khandker grabbing his patients’ breasts. How did the abuse happen?
Crumiller: In most of his assaults, from what we can tell, his survivors were stunned, shocked, frozen, silent and in a state of panic. I think he cultivated that very deliberately with some of his habits. For example, assaulting patients while the parents were in the room. He had a pattern where he would set it up where the parents were behind him and he would position himself in between his victim and the parents. So the parent was just a few feet away, but couldn’t see what he was doing with his hands. I think he did that on purpose, to create a situation where the person was even more confused. And another thing that he would do very commonly is to chat casually the entire time as he was grabbing, groping and touching the breasts of his patients in a way that was very disorienting for most of his patients and most of his victims, because it was incongruous.
“In most of his assaults, from what we can tell, his survivors were stunned, shocked, frozen, silent and in a state of panic.”
Baker: Is there evidence about other forms of sexual assault?
Crumiller: We’ve heard rumors of quid pro quo sexual harassment against his employees but I don’t have firsthand knowledge of that. His former employees in particular are extremely afraid to come forward because if they did, they would be so identifiable to him. Everyone’s really scared of him. I think if all of this comes out, and if there’s a lot of attention, I suspect we’ll get a lot more details and a lot more facts about his bad behavior. I think there’s a lot of bad behavior that he’s engaged in, that we don’t know about.
Baker: How has Khandker been able to get away with this behavior for so long?
Crumiller: The same way many abusers do. Dr. Robert A. Hadden and Dr. Larry Nassar both victimized hundreds before they were caught. Harvey Weinstein was sexually assaulting people for decades. They know that shame will keep their victims silent. They know their victims will feel isolated and afraid and gaslit. Khandker’s victims are young women who are first- or second generation or are immigrants themselves. He is willing to gamble that the cost of speaking out is far greater to them than the cost of staying silent.
Dr. Khandker is extremely powerful. He has all these connections to powerful people. He’s friends with politicians. He’s friends with rich people. He has this giant YouTube following. At the end of the day, it’s pretty amazing when you think about what courage it took our clients to be the ones to come forward. He’s like an Andrew Cuomo of Jackson Heights.
“They know that shame will keep their victims silent. They know their victims will feel isolated and afraid and gaslit.”
Baker: What do you mean by “Andrew Cuomo of Jackson Heights”?
Crumiller: There are such eerie parallels between this and Cuomo, where Cuomo got away with it for so long because he had this illusion of unlimited power. That’s how these young women feel about Dr. Khandker, understandably.
Cuomo sort of had his own fiefdom, his administration and people were afraid to speak out because he was the master of that domain, and they were stuck within that domain. Everyone knew that their New York political career could be derailed if they were to speak out because he had a lot of control over a big swath of New York politics.
My goal is to chip away at this godlike status that powerful men have and to show the world that anyone can be taken down. As I’ve been ruminating on Cuomo, I think the big issue is that we afford these men too much power and control. And that’s on all of us. But ultimately, my goal is to take this guy down. I want him to lose his license. I want him to pay my clients.
“My goal is to chip away at this godlike status that powerful men have and to show the world that anyone can be taken down.“
Baker: How did your firm get involved in this case?
Crumiller: We first got in touch with our clients because they were looking for representation in a defamation suit that Khandker had filed against them. Someone had posted about a quote-unquote friend who had been assaulted by Dr. Khandker at a medical visit. Then everyone started saying “me too.” Many other women started coming forward with tons of allegations about conduct, including sexual assault allegations, but also various allegations about misdiagnoses, insurance fraud, billing fraud and disrespectful behavior. Khandker filed a defamation lawsuit against three women that he managed to identify. Once we started talking to them, we said you guys have claims against him. And that’s when we asserted counterclaims on behalf of one of the plaintiffs for the assault.
Then there were some community activists who were helping. One community activist had started a petition on Change.org to try to get his medical license revoked. Someone had also started an Instagram page collecting the allegations against him. So we joined forces with the community activists and a number of people ended up filing complaints with the Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC).
After we asserted our counterclaims, and we made it clear that we were wanting to conduct discovery and depose him, he then said, I’m not going to participate in this litigation anymore. I’m asserting my Fifth Amendment privilege because of the OPMC investigation. And at that point, we filed our motion for summary judgment, saying basically, “Judge, this is insane. You can’t refuse to comply with your discovery obligations in a case you yourself filed.”
He had failed to submit any opposition to our motion—not even an affidavit saying “I didn’t do it.” The judge dismissed the case and awarded attorney’s fees under the new anti-SLAPP statute, which we’re immensely grateful for.
Baker: Why do you think Khandker refused to participate in the defamation case that he filed?
Crumiller: To establish a claim for defamation, you have to show that you suffered actual damage. So when we showed up to fight the defamation case, we demanded not just all the information about the truth of the allegations, but also all of his financial information, which is relevant to show that he suffered economic damage. And obviously, he didn’t want to provide all of that. We were entitled to sit him down under oath and ask him whatever questions we wanted about the allegations. He put himself in a totally self-defeating position.
We feel extremely confident, just in light of our past defamation experience, that he really thought he would just file this case, and everyone would fold and take down their posts and go away quietly. I’m 100 percent sure that’s what he expected to happen. And the fact he then very quickly parted ways with the attorneys who started off on the case tells us that he only paid them for that minimal amount of work, counting on the fact that it would suffice. I think he was caught off guard when we showed up to fight back.
I hate to think that he could have gotten away with it. I mean, the fact is filing the defamation lawsuit was so stupid of him. Because if he hadn’t done that, his survivors wouldn’t necessarily have sought out lawyers. They were not originally planning to file claims against him. Right? They just wanted to move on and he flew too close to the sun. He stirred up a hornet’s nest. Now he is probably regretting it.
We put this page up on my website where we have a couple other examples where a perpetrator filed a cease and desist letter trying to silence the victim or survivor or someone who’s just spoke publicly about the allegations. We want that to backfire in every single instance.
Baker: Why are you speaking out about this case?
Crumiller: I think the more attention that the case gets, the more his other survivors will see how common this is, and just how similar each instance has been. Then they’ll feel less alone, and they’ll feel like they can reach out to us.
Baker: What would you say to someone who has experienced abuse like this?
Crumiller: I think that they should know that if something like this happens to them or to a friend that they should tell someone and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed. There’s still so much shame around being the victim of sexual assault and sexual harassment. I don’t know how to combat that other than to bring these cases and to make them public. But I think even just reaching out, even just talking about it with other people helps. If this lawsuit can inspire somebody, even just to tell a friend about something that happened to them that they had previously kept to themselves, I will consider that a success. Because at the end of the day, I want us to stop carrying this shame.