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By Jessica Gresko, AP News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of women who visited a Baltimore gynecologist who secretly photographed and videotaped patients will be allowed to join together for settlement talks in a class action lawsuit against Johns Hopkins Hospital, which employed him.

Lawyers for both the patients who filed the class action lawsuit against Hopkins and the hospital itself asked a judge earlier this week to sign papers that will let the parties move forward with settlement negotiations. The judge signed the papers Wednesday, and a lawyer for the patients said Friday he would expect settlement negotiations to begin before the end of the year.

Hospital officials began investigating Dr. Nikita Levy in February of this year after an employee reported suspecting him of photographing patients. The employee said Levy wore what looked like a pen around his neck, but she believed it was a camera. Hopkins security questioned Levy on Feb. 5 and barred him from contact with patients. Hopkins notified Baltimore City police the day after, and police ultimately seized a large amount of evidence including multiple servers from Levy’s home.

Levy, 54, later committed suicide. A graduate of Cornell University’s medical school, he had worked at Johns Hopkins since 1988.

According to the documents signed Wednesday by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge, anyone who was a patient of Levy’s would be covered by settlement talks. The lawsuit filed earlier this year says 9,000 or more women were patients. Lawyers currently represent some 3,800 women. The lawsuit claims the hospital knew or should have known that Levy was photographing and videotaping patients without their consent and that officials failed to discover, stop and report his actions. Women will not have to prove that they were photographed or videotaped to be covered by the settlement discussions.

Jonathan Schochor, one of the lawyers leading negotiations for the patients along with Howard Janet, said the fact that Johns Hopkins lawyers joined in asking the judge to let settlement negotiations move forward signals a willingness to “end this disaster for everyone.”

Johns Hopkins said in a statement Friday that the hospital believes “attempting to resolve the claims without protracted litigation is in the best interests” of patients. The hospital said it “sincerely hopes” that moving forward will “facilitate a fair resolution of all claims.”