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Cavanaugh v. United States

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 31, 2014



DENISE J. CASPER, District Judge.


Plaintiff Todd R. Cavanaugh ("Cavanaugh") brings this action against the Defendant, the United States of America, [1] under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. ยง 2674, for claims arising out of Cavanaugh's alleged sexual relationship with Renee T. Donahue ("Donahue"), a Veterans Administration ("VA") rehabilitation technician. Cavanaugh claims that Donahue used her position as a counselor in the VA's drug treatment program to initiate a sexual relationship with him, which undermined Cavanaugh's recovery and led to his relapse into drug abuse. The matter proceeded to a bench trial on Cavanaugh's claims for professional malpractice (Count I) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count III). Having received proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law from the parties, D. 65, 66, the Court now issues its findings of facts and conclusions of law and enters judgment for the Defendant.


Cavanaugh filed his complaint on July 30, 2012. D. 1. Before trial, Cavanaugh filed a motion for spoliation of evidence and for sanctions on March 12, 2014. D. 35. The Defendant filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law on May 30, 2014. D. 46. On June 11, 2014, Cavanaugh filed an assented-to motion of voluntary dismissal of his claims for breach of fiduciary duty (Count II) and negligent supervision (Count IV). D. 54. On June 12, 2014, at the final pretrial conference, the Court denied Cavanaugh's motion for spoliation and sanctions, D. 35, granted his motion to dismiss Counts II and IV with prejudice, D. 54, and denied the Government's motion for judgment as a matter of law, D. 46, as to Count III, reserving judgment on Count I. D. 56, 58.

The matter proceeded to a bench trial on the two remaining counts, Counts I and III on June 16, 2014 ("Trial Day 1"). Testimony continued on June 17, 2014 ("Trial Day 2"), June 18, 2014 ("Trial Day 3") and June 19, 2014 ("Trial Day 4"). During the trial, the Court heard the testimony of Cavanaugh and Donahue, and the following witnesses: (1) Sandra Diaz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Bedford VA Medical Center; (2) Christopher Krebs, Ph.D., another clinical psychologist at the Bedford VA Medical Center; (3) Timothy Dalton, a former patient at the Bedford VA Medical Center who now works at the Brockton VA; and (4) Herbert French, a rehabilitation technician at the Bedford VA Medical Center. After the submission of proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law from counsel, D. 65, 66, the Court heard closing arguments on July 23, 2014 ("Trial Day 5").


In light of the evidence presented to the Court, the Court makes the following findings of fact:

A. VA's Treatment Program

1. When Cavanaugh moved to Massachusetts in 2008, he sought treatment at the Edith Nourse Rogers VA Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts (the "Bedford VA"). Ex. 21 at 2; Ex. 24 at 4.[2] Cavanaugh was admitted into the Bedford VA's Intensive Day Treatment Program ("IDTP") and Aftercare program in April 2009, after reporting that his cocaine and alcohol use was increasing. Ex. 24 at 5. IDTP is a two week in-patient program designed to help veterans detoxify and recover. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:88, 99.[3] Aftercare is an outpatient program designed to help veterans achieve permanent sobriety. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:8, 28; Dr. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:17-19. Veterans are assigned a counselor and followed by a medical team to ensure that they do not relapse. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:44; Dr. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:19-20.

2. Veterans' recoveries are assisted by rehabilitation technicians, as well as by licensed nurses, a licensed nurse supervisor, licensed social workers, licensed psychologists, and physicians. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:44. The rehabilitation technician reports directly to a nurse manager. Ex. 3 at 4. The work of a rehabilitation technician is supervised by a nurse, social worker, and psychologist. Id . Rehabilitation technicians are required to seek assistance from one of these professionals whenever presented with a medical situation beyond their knowledge. Id.

3. Dr. Sandra Diaz ("Dr. Diaz") is a clinical psychologist employed at the Bedford VA who works with substance abuse patients. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:16-18. Dr. Diaz has been a practicing psychologist for over twenty years. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:16. She knows Cavanaugh from observing his work on the Veterans Construction Team, a program under the aegis of the Compensated Work Therapy ("CWT") program, and from conversing with him. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:32, 39.

4. CWT is a program under which recovering veterans may earn wages for work performed on VA projects. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:85. Its purpose is to provide veterans with structure, income and a sense of purpose through being engaged in productive work. Id . at 98.

5. Timothy Dalton ("Dalton") is an employee of the Brockton, Massachusetts VA Medical Center (the "Brockton VA") and a recovering alcoholic who first met Cavanaugh in February 2010 when they were both patients at the Bedford VA. Dalton Testimony, Tr. 1:76. They later resided at the Crescent House, a residential facility for recovering addicts together. Id . at 77. Dalton and Cavanaugh discussed their recovery progress with each other. See e.g., id. at 79-80.

6. Dr. Christopher Krebs ("Dr. Krebs") is a clinical psychologist at the Bedford VA who treats patients who suffer from substance abuse. Dr. Krebs Testimony, Tr. 2:196-97. Dr. Krebs treated Cavanaugh in 2011. Id . at 205.

B. Todd Cavanaugh

7. Cavanaugh is a Marine Corps veteran who suffers from alcohol and cocaine addiction. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:122, 129.

1. Personal Background

8. Cavanaugh moved out of his family's home at the age of seventeen after having a difficult relationship with his mother and stepfather. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:84; Ex. 24 at 3-4.

2. Education and Professional History

9. After graduation from high school, Cavanaugh worked a variety of jobs. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:123. In 1985, Cavanaugh enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Ex. 21 at 2. He spent the majority of his service stationed in San Diego, California. Ex. 24 at 4; Ex. 21 at 5. He was never engaged in combat, but while in the military Cavanaugh worked primarily as an electrician repairing helicopters. Id . He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1989. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:124; Ex. 37 at 1.

10. After being honorably discharged from the Marines, Cavanaugh returned to Massachusetts briefly before settling in California where he worked a variety of jobs. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:124; Ex. 21 at 5. Beginning around 1990, Cavanaugh had a succession of jobs, including but not limited to employment with the City of Escondido, California, as a construction worker then as a supervisor for the Department of Public Works and later as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:124, 127; Ex. 21 at 5; Ex. 27 at 5. He was terminated from the City of Escondido job in 1995, Ex. 55; see also Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:124-26, and later left the postal service in 2008, because he felt it had become too stressful to handle and that it was affecting his sobriety. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:127.

11. Cavanaugh moved to Massachusetts in 2008 and worked as a "mental health worker" at McLean Hospital. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:128; Ex. 21 at 5; Ex. 27 at 5. His employment at the hospital ended in December 2009 following a dispute over his allegation of a workplace injury. Ex. 21 at 5; Ex. 54; Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:110-11.

12. At various times from 2010 until 2012, Cavanaugh was employed by the VA in its CWT program for addicts. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:10-11, 85; Ex. 16 at 1; Ex. 24 at 2. Cavanaugh's CWT employment was disrupted by a December 2010 cocaine relapse. Ex. 31 at 1. Cavanaugh has not had a long term job since leaving the CWT program and remains unemployed. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:108-09.

3. Medical History

a) Disability

13. While serving in the Marine Corps, Cavanaugh suffered several non-combat related injuries to his spine, knee, and foot. Ex. 37 at 1-2. As a result of these injuries, Cavanaugh began receiving VA disability benefits, for partial disability, in 1989, the year that he was discharged from the Marines. Id . On July 11, 2012, Cavanaugh's rating was increased to one hundred percent disability due to "Major Depressive Disorder Associated with Musculoligamentus Strain of the Cervical Spine." Id . at 1; Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:83.

14. In addition to Cavanaugh's Musculoligamentous Strain of the Cervical Spine, the VA has determined that Cavanaugh has other disabilities related to his service. Ex. 37 at 1-2. He is 50% disabled due to "Right Knee Limitation of Extension, " Ex. 37 at 1; 20% disabled due to "Status Post Left Plantar Fasciitis Release and Scraping of Heel Spur, " Id .; 20% disabled due to "Radiculopathy Associated with Musculoligamentous Strain of the Cervical Spine, " Ex. 37 at 2; 10% disabled due to "Degenerative Changes Right Knee, " Id .; and 10% disabled due to "Tinnitus Associated with Hearing Loss, Left Ear." Id.

b) Mental Health

15. Cavanaugh has struggled with depression and anxiety. Ex. 21 at 2. In 2001, Cavanaugh was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Ex. 27 at 3. Cavanaugh was treated for "clinical depression" in California in 2005, id., and has been diagnosed with PSTD attributed to childhood trauma. Ex. 21 at 4. At the Bedford VA, Cavanaugh was diagnosed with and treated for depression. Ex. 24 at 7; Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:134.

c) History of Addiction

16. Cavanaugh's use of alcohol began in his early teens and his cocaine use began around the age of nineteen. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:129-30; Ex. 21 at 1. However, due in part to residual trauma from his turbulent childhood and the failure of his first marriage, Cavanaugh's drug and alcohol abuse escalated in later years. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:130.

17. Cavanaugh made his first attempt at addiction recovery around the age of twentytwo but did not complete the program. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:135-36. In subsequent years, Cavanaugh has repeatedly tried, but failed to achieve permanent sobriety from drugs and alcohol despite rehabilitation programs. Ex. 21 at 1. Cavanaugh has previously reported that his longest period of sobriety was two years. Ex. 24 at 7.

18. Cavanaugh admits that his substance abuse is "terrifying, " characterized by loss of friends, family and relationships. "Using is about destroying [relationships] and everything in your life." Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:132-33.

4. Personal Relationship History

19. Cavanaugh has a long history of difficulty in his relationships with women due, in part, to his addictions, his PTSD and his difficult childhood. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:7-8, 83-84.

20. Cavanaugh's first marriage was strained, in part, by his drug addiction and they divorced in 1998. Ex. 21 at 2; Ex. 27 at 4. He has two children from this marriage, both of whom reside in California. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:121-22.

21. Cavanaugh married again in October 2007. Ex. 27 at 5; Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 1:123, 128. He and his second wife separated in 2008 and were divorced in 2010. Ex. 21.

22. More recently, Cavanaugh had a turbulent relationship with his now ex-girlfriend, Martha Rumble. Cavanaugh Testimony, Tr. 2:72. After an explosive argument with Rumble, the Gloucester District Court issued a "stay away" order against Cavanaugh, and, in June 2010, the charges of assault and battery and harassment were continued without a finding and he was placed on probation until June 2011. Ex. 24 at 3; Ex. 56. Although he suffered persistent panic attacks in connection with these charges, he continued a relationship with Rumble through 2010. Ex. 24 at 3. Cavanaugh considered the relationship to be a "safety net, " despite the fighting and allegations of abuse. Ex. 24 at 3.

23. In counseling sessions, Cavanaugh joked with Dr. Diaz that he would still call her doctor after they were married. Dr. Diaz Testimony, Tr. 1:39. Dr. Diaz felt that this behavior was "normal transference, " id., which is common when a client "has positive feelings" towards a therapist. Id . at 40. Dr. Diaz explained that when people open up to a therapist, often "it's a new experience for them to have someone completely accept them and not judge them, " which can lead to feelings of intimacy. Id . at 41. Dr. Diaz explained that, as a clinical psychologist, she has been trained to deal with feelings of transference in her patients and to create the necessary boundaries without creating shame in the patient. Id . at 41-42. Dr. Diaz confirmed that in her experience it is "fairly common for transference to take place." Id . at 41.

C. Renee Donahue

1. Personal Background

24. Donahue is a recovering addict and has worked as a rehabilitation technician at the Bedford VA since 2007, helping other addicts to maintain their sobriety. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:2, 12-13. She works with her husband, Don Donahue, who is also a rehabilitation technician, and they have three children and three grandchildren. Id . at 4.

2. Education and Work History

25. As a teenager, Donahue dropped out of high school, but she received her GED in 1995. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:11-12. Although Donahue has taken a few college level courses, she has no other experience in higher education or trade school. Id . at 11.

26. As noted above, Donahue works as a rehabilitation technician at the Bedford VA. A rehabilitation technician assists recovering addicts maintain their sobriety, through teaching group sessions, individual meetings with veterans, and managing their administrative needs. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:14-15; French Testimony, Tr. 4:90-91; Ex. 3.

27. When Donahue was hired, she started as a rehabilitation technician in the IDTP. Donahue Testimony, Tr. 3:8-9, 95. She was later ...

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