The Fraud of Lee H. Shoemate: When Civil Law Gets Really, Really Creepy
Sometimes the facts of a case are far more interesting than the law.
Once in a while you stumble across a case so icky, you just have to write about it. Dunkley v. Shoemate, 350 N.C. 573, 515 S.E.2d 442 (1999), is such a case. The legal issue of the case seems dry and boring – whether a certain law firm should be allowed to represent a certain individual, or not, because of things to do with the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct. But the facts of the case are something straight out of a Hitchcockian thriller.
On September 25, 1989, Rebecca Dunkley was admitted to the University of North Carolina Hospitals at Chapel Hill for depression. When she was discharged, she was assigned to biweekly outpatient therapy with a UNC resident in psychiatry, Lee H. Shoemate.
Around the same time, Dr. Shoemate also committed 17-year-old Ruby C. Staton for psychiatric treatment at UNC for severe depression. She remained there for two months.
These two stories, which might at first seem so commonplace and normal, are actually deeply disturbing. Why? First and foremost,
because Lee H. Shoemate was not actually a doctor.
Shoemate applied for the residency with UNC in January of 1989, boasting an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas and stating that he was currently an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School. Shoemate provided letters from the associate dean of Harvard and a Harvard lecturer. UNC hired him for the residency, and he began working for them in July of 1989.
Those letters from the Harvard faculty were forgeries. Shoemate was not in medical school at all, let alone at Harvard. UNC hired him without checking into his background. During the second year of his residency, 1990, Shoemate (if that even is his real name!) applied for a North Carolina medical license. Luckily, the licensing process required the N.C. Board of Medical Examiners to look into applicants’ backgrounds. They immediately learned that the American Medical Association had no file on Shoemate, and that he was not and had never been a medical student, at Harvard or elsewhere.
When this was discovered, Shoemate disappeared. But it was already too late. He had been practicing for over a year when the licensing board discovered his fraud on October 1, 1990. While practicing, he “treated” many patients, two of whom were Staton and Dunkley. And, unfortunately for everyone involved, this wasn’t a fun con man situation a la Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” Shoemate did irreparable harm to at least those two patients, if not more.
Dunkley: victimized when she was most vulnerable.
Dunkley alleged that Shoemate raped her. The most bone-chilling portion of the case reads as follows: “following the alleged incident, Shoemate continued to treat [Dunkley], informed her that this sexual contact was a necessary part of her treatment, and threatened to involuntarily commit her to a psychiatric hospital if she told anyone about the incident.” Dunkley v. Shoemate, 350 N.C. 573, 575–76, 515 S.E.2d 442, 443 (1999). Repeatedly sexually assaulting someone under the guise of therapy and threatening to involuntarily commit them if they tell anyone? That’s nightmare fuel, right there. Imagine going to someone you think you can trust implicitly, your therapist, only to learn that they’re not a therapist at all, but a blackmailing, coercive rapist.
Staton: subjected to a cruel ordeal for no reason.
What happened to Staton is different, but also terrible. At 17, she was experiencing severe and sudden weight loss and gastrointestinal issues. The fake Dr. Shoemate diagnosed her with severe depression and had her committed. She later – two whole months later – learned that Crohn’s disease, a severe and chronic inflammatory disease of the bowels and intestines, was causing all of her symptoms, not depression. By playing doctor without a license, Shoemate either didn’t know or didn’t care that he was misdiagnosing Staton, and had her committed for mental illness when she was in fact suffering from a physical malady. Because of the missed diagnosis, Staton ended up needing surgery to remove part of her bowel. Imagine being 17, not knowing what’s going on with your body and suddenly deteriorating health, and being thrown in a mental institution rather than being given much needed treatment for the Crohn’s. There’s nothing wrong with needing to be hospitalized for a mental health condition; there is something deeply wrong with being hospitalized for one that doesn’t exist.
Medical malpractice by a fake doctor: UNC’s attempt to duck liability.
As a final layer of grossness on this story, UNC attempted to deny all liability for Shoemate’s actions when Staton and Dunkley sued. They did not want their malpractice insurance to cover Shoemate – even though they were the ones who hired Shoemate without investigating him at all. They fought very hard on this point, all the way to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Under the tort theory of respondeat superior, the master is responsible for the actions of the servant; liability in this case clearly lies with UNC and Shoemate. He hardly committed the perfect fraud – simply calling Harvard admissions would have exposed him immediately. From what I can gather, Dunkley, Staton, and perhaps other patients did end up winning their lawsuits. There are several lawsuits out there at several levels in the court system, so it’s hard to say for sure without more detailed research.
What happened next? More questions than answers.
A lot of this story is missing. We know that Shoemate must have “treated” other patients during his year-long stint as a psychiatric resident. We can only assume that he must have sexually assaulted and misdiagnosed other patients as well. I could not find any information on Staton alleging sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I am definitely inclined to believe Dunkley’s allegations of rape. Why would someone go to the trouble and risk of applying for a residency they were in no way qualified for, if not to manipulate and control patients? Put another way, if someone is brazen and bold enough to apply for a residency, lie and say they were a Harvard student, forge letters from Harvard faculty, and eventually have the arrogance to apply for medical licensing knowing that they were not a doctor, doesn’t that person seem unstable and narcissistic enough to rape, and get a kick out of controlling, patients as well?
I Googled Lee H. Shoemate and did find a record that seemed too accurate to be someone else. I will not link to it on the chance that it’s not the right person. My sources for this blog post, other than the case named and linked above, were this article and this case, UNC v. Shoemate.
I wish I knew what happened to the two victims who sued Shoemate, Ms. Dunkley and Ms. Staton. I hope they got a boatload of money from UNC and some kind of justice or closure.