Midlands Physical Medicine can be found on Hardscrabble Road in Columbia, which is a fitting location for the office, according to a sexual harassment lawsuit that describes a dysfunctional and inhospitable work environment.
A 25-year-old single mother who worked as a receptionist at the office alleges in a complaint filed in Richland County in January that Dr. Joseph Ben Barton routinely sexually harassed and abused her while attempting to “convert her into a Scientologist.”
The suit also names physician’s assistant Kevin Burnham, who allegedly stole medication from the plaintiff’s purse and, after she was involved in a car crash, used her situation to obtain hydrocodone and Valium.
Burnham, whose license to practice as a physician’s assistant was temporarily suspended in 2010, also is accused of offering to pay the plaintiff $5,000 to keep him out of the suit.
The allegations against Barton are far worse.
He allegedly discovered that the plaintiff had been the victim of sexual abuse and used her past to “prey on her weaknesses and vulnerabilities,” according to the complaint.
“Barton told [the plaintiff] that through his practice of Scientology, he could sense emotional disturbances in people and could sense that Doe [the unnamed plaintiff] had suffered emotional trauma,” the suit states.
The plaintiff alleges that after repeated harassment, Barton eventually coerced her into having sex with him by offering her “bonuses” that ranged from $300 to $1,700.
Attempts to speak with attorneys for Midlands Physical Medicine were unsuccessful. The practice specializes in non-surgical pain management, including stem cell therapy. One of the practice’s attorneys, Art Aiken of Columbia, reportedly told The State newspaper that the defense was preparing an answer to the suit and would “deny all liability.”
Meanwhile, an attorney for the plaintiff, Eric Bland of Bland Richter in Columbia, suggested that the #MeToo movement had played a role in his client’s decision to sue.
“Women should have the right to speak up and not face repercussions,” he said. “Up until this movement, I think there’s been some reticence on the part of women to come forward.”
Doe was fired in September 2017, when Barton accused her of using his credit card without his permission and stealing an office iPhone. But she contends that she was given the phone and that Barton had texted her front and back pictures of his credit card so she could use it to pay for her daughter’s daycare tuition and other expenses “as a further enticement to win Doe’s sexual favors.”
Barton and Burnham filed a criminal complaint with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office in which they accused Doe of stealing the iPhone and using Barton’s credit card without his permission, according to the suit.
But Bland said the case was dropped after investigators met with Doe and saw the texts that Barton had sent her.
Some of the texts are too graphic to print, but in one exchange Barton allegedly wrote: “I shouldn’t do this and write this stuff because I know you are going to sue me.”
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz