What options does an accused person have if he or she is falsely accused of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred decades ago? What if the accused believes the accusations are a consequence of highly suggestive therapy? Does a therapist have a duty to avoid suggestive techniques that are known to create false memories, to consider available information that contradicts the patient’s beliefs, or to follow professional guidelines that clearly state that the truth or falsity of memories can only be determined with external corroboration? Is a therapist responsible to a third-party if he or she validated the memories of a patient who then files a lawsuit? These are some of the questions that are often asked in third-party suits.
Third-party false-memory legal cases are those in which a person who was not a patient sues the therapist of the person who makes the accusations. We are aware of few successful cases. One reason for that may be that what patients talk about to their therapists is usually considered to be confidential. How, then, could anyone ever know the role of the therapist in the developing beliefs? Another reason is that third parties have traditionally not had standing to bring lawsuits. The law does not generally acknowledged that a mental health professional has a duty to those with whom there is no formal client-therapist relationship.
Below are brief summaries of four high-profile third-party suits in which the plaintiff prevailed. The cases demonstrate the arguments and complicated legal efforts involved in bringing these cases. As of 2014, Wisconsin is a state that has established case law that provides a possible path for these cases.
When Holly Ramona’s mother brought her to therapist Marche Isabella looking for help for Holly’s bulimia, Isabella told her that 80 percent of people who suffer from eating disorders had been sexually abused as children. Holly said she did not know if she had been abused, but after months of meetings with Isabella, often three or four times a week, Holly had a flashback of sexual abuse. In an effort at clarification, Holly was administered the drug sodium amytal and told that it would help her find the truth of whether she had been abused even though there is no scientific evidence to support the claim. Sodium amytal is not a truth serum.
Holly became convinced that she had been abused and sued her father, Garry Ramona, who subsequently lost his family and his position as vice president of Robert Mondavi Winery. Mr. Ramona then sued Marche Isabella and Dr. Richard Rose, chief of psychiatry at Western Medical Center in Anaheim for negligent treatment of Holly.
In this landmark case, in a 10 to 2 vote, a jury awarded Gary Ramona $500,000.00 in damages.
Dr. Park Elliott Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist hired by Gary Ramona, testified that Isabella’s conclusion was an "outrageous misrepresentation" and that Isabella and Rose failed to follow standards for acceptable therapeutic care. After the trial, he said the case was important because "while there’s much in place to regulate the use of surgery and medication and electroshock and other powerful treatments, there has been little to constrain the use of psychotherapeutic techniques that are equally powerful."
Detailed information about this case can be found in the book Spectral Evidence: The Ramona Case: Incest, Memory, and Truth on Trial in Napa Valley by Moira Johnson.
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Social worker Susan L. Jones’s training in treating patients allegedly afflicted with repressed memories of sexual assault was a lecture on memory retrieval techniques at a weekend conference she attended. Nevertheless, she treated Laura B. who had no knowledge or memory of being sexually abused by her father before she started therapy with Jones. Using visualizations, Jones led Laura into a self-induced trance to uncover allegedly lost memories of sexual abuse.
At Jones direction, Laura stopped communicating with her father. She filed a police report and Joel Hungerford was arrested and jailed for several months. A trial followed and in May 1995, the Superior Court (Groff, J.) ruled that Laura’s "memories" of assault recovered during therapy were not admissible at trial because they were not scientifically reliable. The NH Supreme Court affirmed. See State v. Hungerford, 142 N.H. 110, 134, 697 A.2d 916, 930 (1997).
At that point, Hungerford filed a suit against Jones claiming that her treatment of Laura was negligent. Because Laura had brought the lawsuit, Hungerford had much information about the therapy she received. Jones moved to dismiss claiming that she owed Hungerford no duty of care.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a mental health care provider owes a legal duty to the father of an adult patient to diagnose and treat the patient with the requisite skill and competence of the profession when the diagnosis is that the father sexually abused or assaulted the patient. It also affirmed that a mental health care provider owe a duty to act with reasonable care to avoid foreseeable harm to the father of an adult patient resulting from treatment or other action taken in relation to mental health conditions arising from the diagnosis of past sexual abuse or assault by said father. The opinion in this case is available at www.courts.state.nh.us
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Wisconsin Supreme Court, Sawyer v. Midelfort No. 97-1969, submitted July 17, 1998.
Nancy Anneatra had been treated for a variety of psychiatric problems from a young age. In 1983, Anneatra was in her mid 20s and living in a women’s shelter where she met Celia Luasted who began to treat her even though she was unlicensed at the time. In 1985 Anneatra confronted her parents claiming she had recovered memories of being sexually abused as a child and filed a lawsuit in Minnesota that was later dismissed. After the confrontation, Anneatra, who had changed her name to make it more difficult for her parents to find her, cut off all contact. Her parents never saw her again. Anneatra died of cancer in 1995.
After Anneatra’s death in 1995, her mother was appointed administrator of the estate. Mrs. Sawyer was then able to obtain copies of Anneatra’s treatment records, and after reading them, claims to have first discovered the role of the therapists in her daughter’s alleged recovery of false memories.
In 1996, the Sawyers sued their adult daughter’s psychiatrist H. Berit Midelfort and therapist Celia Lausted for negligent diagnosis and treatment that caused their daughter to develop false memories of sexual abuse by her father and various other family members and acquaintances. The Sayers claimed that the therapists failed to properly diagnose and treat Anneatra’s problems, misdirected her therapy to recover false memories of sexual abuse through the negligent performance of hypnosis and by failing to recognize problems created by such hypnosis.
In a landmark decision, a Wisconsin jury awarded $5.08 million to Delores and Thomas Sawyer on March 16, 2001 for the pain and suffering they sustained as a result of false memories of sexual abuse that developed when their daughter was in therapy.
Attorney William Smoler shepherded the Sawyer case in its journey through the Wisconsin court system to the State Supreme Court as the Sawyers argued that they had standing to bring the case. The Supreme Court decision of special interest in third-party cases can be found at: www.wicourts.gov
The court noted:
"We are quite confident that negligent treatment which encourages false accusations of sexual abuse is highly culpable for the resulting injury."
"The harms the Sawyers have alleged are the ordinary and predictable injuries one might expect following negligent therapy which implants and reinforces false memories of sexual abuse at the hands of family members which results in accusations of that abuse."
The FMSF filed an amicus brief in this case. It is available at the FMSF web site: Sawyer v. Midelfort
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Johnson v. Rogers Memorial Hospital
Shortly after Charlotte Johnson began psychotherapy treatment with Kay Phillips at Heartland Counseling Services in 1991, Phillips referred Charlotte to Rogers Memorial Hospital for treatment in specialty programs that focused on eating disorders and depression. Charlotte was admitted to Rogers as an inpatient, and her parents Karen and Charles Johnson agreed to pay for this care.
While being treated at Rogers, Charlotte developed the belief that her parents had sexually and physically abused her as a young child. After Charlotte left the hospital, she continued to receive outpatient treatment there. She confronted her father about this abuse on November 22, 1991 and confronted her mother on October 28, 1993. Both confrontations occurred during meetings with the hospital therapist present. Charlotte claimed her father had raped her at age three and that her mother had come after her with a knife and tried to drown her and that the family dabbled in cults and infanticide. The Johnsons denied that such abuse occurred, but Charlotte terminated her relationship with her parents. The Johnsons have never been able to reestablish any relationship with her, and Charlotte continues to believe that her parents abused her.
In 2011, the Johnson case finally came to trial and a jury awarded the parents one million dollars.
The Johnson’s filed their case in May 1996 and it took 15 years to work its way to trial as the Johnson’s fought to gain access to their daughter’s therapy records. The attorney in the case was William Smoler and it rests on the shoulders of the Sawyer v Midelfort case in 2001 that he argued. The crucial difference between the Sawyer and Johnson cases is that the Sawyers had access to their daughter’s therapy records. Charlotte Johnson, however, is alive and has refused to permit access to her records.
Critical to this case is a 2001 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that upheld the Johnson’s right to sue. Lower courts then dismissed the case on the grounds that there could be no trial without access to the records. Mr. Smoler argued that there had been exceptions to confidentiality on public policy grounds. He argued that Charlotte had already breached her own confidentiality by making her public accusations in the presence of her parents and therapist.
In 1995, the case went again to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that a judge could decide if the Charlotte Johnson’s therapy records should be made available to the parents over her and her therapist’s objections.
Mr. Smoler’s argument is available at: Wisconsin 2011, Johnson v. Phillips - Attorney Smoler’s Closing Arguments
The 2005 ruling stated that if the Johnsons could explain to the judge why the victim’s records might show a reasonable likelihood of establishing that the memories were the result of bad therapy, then the judge could view the therapy records. If the judge is persuaded by the Johnsons’ arguments, he could then review the records in camera and provide to the plaintiffs those sections that he deems to contain relevant information. The parents might get many records or none depending on the evaluation of the judge. The decision noted the following as grounds for its decision.
The grounds for waiver may be summarized as follows:
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Third-party cases ask the question: does a therapist owe a duty to a third party, most often a parent, who has been accused of abuse as a result of suggestive therapy? Such cases are difficult to launch especially when the accused does not have a relationship with the accuser’s therapist.
For additional reading:
Lipton, A. (1999). In Sheila Taub (Editor), Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse: Psychological, social and legal perspectives on a contemporary mental health controversy. Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd., Springfield, Illinois. (section - Third Party Suits Brought By Families Who Say They Have Been Falsely Accused)
Last Updated: March 11, 2014
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