Former Pittsfield drug court judge named in sexual harassment complaint

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PITTSFIELD — A judge who left the bench without explanation in August stands accused of sexual harassment by a social worker once assigned to his Pittsfield courtroom.

District Court Judge Thomas H. Estes was reassigned Aug. 17 to administrative duties in Holyoke, an action that removed him from hearing cases in weekly drug court sessions in Pittsfield that began last year and at the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, where he was first justice.

Estes' reassignment came days after the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination began investigating a complaint filed July 24 by Tammy Cagle, a licensed clinical social worker hired to help launch the specialty court program in Pittsfield.

Cagle's complaint alleges that she entered into a sexual relationship with Estes while on a work-related trip in November 2016, four months after starting her job as clinical coordinator in the drug court. She claims that when she moved to end that relationship last spring, she was removed from her position by her employer, the Behavioral Health Network.

The discrimination complaint names that agency and the Executive Office of the Trial Court.

Jennifer Donahue, public information officer for the trial court, declined to say Friday whether Estes' reassignment was related to the MCAD complaint.

"The reason for the administrative assignment is a personnel matter and is not public," Donahue said in response to a question from The Eagle. She said that status continues and Estes is not hearing cases.

A spokesman for the MCAD said Friday that Cagle's complaint is being actively investigated and confirmed that it concerns the nonprofit Behavioral Health Network and the trial court.

Reached Saturday, Estes declined to speak about the complaint.

"I really cannot comment on that right now," he said in a short telephone interview.

The MCAD docket contains a signed statement by Estes dated Sept. 25 certifying that he had read the trial court's response to Cagle's sexual harassment complaint, a document he affirmed was "truthful to the best of my knowledge."

In position statements filed in September with the MCAD's Springfield office, attorneys representing the Behavioral Health Network and the trial court dispute key allegations in the complaint, though the trial court does not deny that Estes engaged in sexual relations with Cagle, including inside his chambers in the Belchertown court.

Copies of the complaint and the position statements were obtained by The Eagle.

DIFFERENT VIEWS

In her complaint, Cagle says she believes she was discriminated against on the basis of sexual harassment in violation of Chapter 151B of state law and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While she was employed by the Behavioral Health Network, her complaint says, her position was funded by the state Department of Mental Health and by the trial court. Judge Estes led the team that guided the Pittsfield drug court, one of 27 such programs for adults in the state. The courts are designed to shape better outcomes for people with substance abuse problems who face criminal charges.

"Judge Thomas [Estes] was the head of the team and as a result he had control over my tasks and could control my employment status," Cagle says in her complaint.

Cagle, who now works in a prison in Georgia, says she entered into a consensual sexual relationship with Estes on Nov. 16, 2016, while attending a conference in Marlborough.

Cagle says she quit her job with the Behavioral Health Network last spring after being removed from her job in the drug court and reassigned to a different position by the agency.

She told The Eagle she believes she lost her job because she moved to end her sexual relationship with the judge.

After the sexual encounter on the business trip, Cagle said she left the conference early. According to her complaint, the judge called her the next day and they spoke for 45 minutes. "We both agreed it was a night of stupidity that happened because of the alcohol involved," her complaint reads.

In an interview, Cagle said she was worried about their working relationship and wanted to keep her job.

A week later, the MCAD complaint says, Estes asked her to continue having sex. Cagle says the judge said that in exchange he would help her address problems she was having with personnel in the probation department.

"He promised he would not ask again after this because I said no. Accordingly, I again performed oral sex " Cagle's complaint reads.

The sexual contact continued through her employment, Cagle says, though she says in the complaint that she tried "to end the relationship a few times, but was unsuccessful."

In an interview, Cagle expressed remorse over her decision to allow the sexual contact. She said she is fearful about the consequences of filing a discrimination complaint involving the court system but said she feels an obligation to stand up for herself.

"I'm going forward with this. I need to be able to heal," she told The Eagle. "I do want justice. I do. Not just for me but for other women."

When asked why she engaged in sexual relations despite not wanting to, Cagle said she felt immobilized.

"I froze. I don't know how else to tell you," she said. "I have a lot of anxiety around this."

"The process for me has been grueling," Cagle said of filing the discrimination complaint. "One of the reasons you don't report [an allegation of sexual harassment] is because you don't think anyone will believe you."

COURT'S ANSWER

In its 14-page response to the complaint, the trial court argues that Cagle did not make her feelings about the sexual contact clear to Estes.

The position statement, filed by Eamonn Gill, a labor counsel for the trial court's Office of Court Management, argues that Cagle does not have probable cause to file a complaint because Estes did not have "actual or apparent authority" over her work "and did not direct her removal from the Pittsfield Drug Court."

"Judge Estes had no knowledge of, or involvement, in BHN's decision to move Ms. Cagle," Gill's statement says, referring to the Springfield-based human services agency.

Cagle is prepared to present email correspondence showing that her appointment had to be approved by Estes.

The trial court response notes that the laws cited in Cagle's complaint do not prohibit consensual sexual relationships between people who work together.

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Gill's response also takes issue with Cagle's version of how the sexual relationship began. It alleges that she lured the judge into her room at the Best Western Royal Plaza Hotel on the pretext of helping her with the TV remote. "When Judge Estes mentioned the controller, Ms. Cagle replied that he was a fool if he thought that was why she really asked him to her room," the trial court's response states.

"That is absolutely not true," Cagle said of that statement. She said she asked for Estes' help with the TV because she couldn't get it to work. "I was never physically attracted to him," she said.

Gill argues that Cagle continued a sexual relationship with Estes after she stopped working in the drug court.

Further, his response notes that Cagle texted Estes with messages such as "I'm missing you today" and "We could face time. I miss our conversations."

Cagle says she viewed Estes as a mentor and believed she was learning from him. She had recently earned a graduate degree from the University of Connecticut and was working in her chosen field.

"It seemed like we shared the same vision for the drug court," Cagle said of the judge. "He made me feel competent."

The sexual relationship continued until July 3, when Cagle visited Estes in the Belchertown court while she was on a trip to New England from her new job in Georgia. That was three weeks before she filed the MCAD complaint. She sat in the courtroom then went to the judge's chambers, where she says he closed the door and pulled down window shades.

Cagle said she contacted Estes in July because she wanted "closure" over losing her position with the drug court.

"I felt that me being removed had something to do with Judge Estes," she said.

"I don't know why I put myself through that," she said, when asked why the sexual relationship continued after she was no longer working with Estes. "I allowed that to happen. And that makes me really sad. That I allowed somebody to treat me like garbage," she said.

WORK ISSUES

Both the trial court and Behavior Health Network responses to the MCAD complaint cite issues with Cagle's work that led to her removal as the drug court's clinical coordinator.

Cagle acknowledges there was tension in her work with the probation department, but attributes that to what she believes was the department's wish to see more cases channeled through its community corrections program, rather than in treatment programs.

Cagle said she sometimes preferred to enroll people in three- to six-month residential treatment programs, especially in cases where individuals in the court system had already failed to confront their drug issues while in the community corrections program.

"They got really upset about that," she said of officials in the probation department. "It was that simple, it really was."

Cagle said the climate at the drug court, then in its first months of operation, was contentious and involved yelling due to disagreements over how cases should be handled with regard to probation.

"They scared me so bad that I wouldn't come out of my office," she said.

Her former employer, in its own position statement filed with the MCAD, argues that Cagle's complaint should be dismissed as baseless.

The filing, by Kathryn S. Crouss of the firm Bacon Wilson P.C. in Springfield, says Cagle did not complain "of any sexual impropriety to her supervisor or to any other BHN employee during the tenure of her employment ."

Crouss alleges that Cagle had trouble working with the probation department "and other stakeholders within the court."

The agency's MCAD filing includes a Sept. 19 affidavit from Cagle's supervisor, Juliana Reiss, the psychologist who directs BHN's forensic services program.

Reiss states that in September 2016, two months into her job, "Cagle had difficulty in her relationships with the Probation Department."

She cites an instance in which Cagle, while taking part in a workshop, "spoke out against corrections employees, stating that the corrections community in Pittsfield did not want a Drug Court."

Reiss said it was the state mental health department, one of the program's funders, that asked that Cagle be removed from her position with the drug court "due to her difficulties working with the probation department and Drug Court stakeholders, and not for any other reason."

Separately, though, the agency's filing says it was the probation department that asked BHN to remove Cagle from her position.

In December 2016, when Cagle asked Reiss for a job reference for a part-time position, Reiss praised her employee's abilities.

"She has done a great job getting the program off the ground and running smoothly," Reiss said of Cagle's work on the drug court. "In her position she works collaboratively with probation, the judge, treatment programs, and clinicians in the Berkshires to get drug court participants into the types of treatment they require to meet the conditions of their probation, maintain sobriety, achieve greater stability in their lives, and reconnect with their communities."

"She is very hard-working, smart, devoted to her clients, and passionate about her work," Reiss wrote of Cagle.

In a February job review, Cagle also received high marks from David DiSessa, a supervisor in the forensic services program.

The review said Cagle "consistently meets standards" on professional skills and providing community based service.

"Tammy has been a tireless employee for the drug court in Pittsfield," the review states. "She has been instrumental in the starting and functioning of a new drug court."

Crouss, representing BHN, argues that the agency cannot be held responsible for failing to take action if it did not know the alleged sexual harassment was taking place.

"The facts alleged in the Complainant's Charge of Discrimination and reasonable inferences drawn from them, even if true, do not plausibly establish liability" for the agency, Crouss said in her response.

In the MCAD case, Cagle faces an early November deadline to provide rebuttals to the position statements from the trial court and her former employer.

Cagle said she has struggled to find an attorney willing to represent her and is still looking. She said attorneys have expressed a reluctance to take on a case that challenges the trial court and its personnel.

After Estes was reassigned, Judge Paul Smyth took over the drug court duties, according to the trial court.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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