Filing Complaint vs. Suing a Therapist Who Committed Ethical Violations

People who have been harmed by therapists one way or another often want to pursue justice because they feel that their healing cannot begin if they, at least, don’t attempt to get justice they deserve. If this is your situation, you basically have two choices. You can either file a complaint with the therapist’s licensing board or file a lawsuit.

I won’t give my opinion on which option is better. A lot of it depends on the specifics of your case, which you would have to discuss with an attorney who specializes in psychotherapy malpractice.

Legal considerations aside, I believe the best course of action is the one that would assist your recovery and you are the best person to determine which option would serve that goal. This is a highly personal choice where opinions of other people are irrelevant and would not be helpful.

What is always helpful though is to know what those two options usually entail and what kind of processes are involved in each one, so you could make a more informed choice.

The first thing to do regardless of what you will ultimately choose is to consult with an attorney (better with several attorneys) who specializes in psychotherapy malpractice and to get their opinion on whether you have a case for a successful litigation. If they believe your case isn’t solid enough to proceed with, your options will be reduced to basically deciding whether to file or not to file a board complaint. If the attorney believes you do have a case and is willing to work with you, now you have three choices: 1) to proceed with the lawsuit only; 2) to file a board complaint only; 3) to file BOTH the lawsuit AND the board complaint.

The attorney should explain the technical differences between those three options, but, besides technical details, the main thing you need to know is that the option of filing a complaint doesn’t have any downsides for you except that you may not be satisfied with the outcome of the board investigation while the lawsuit may have some unpleasant things attached to it like the so-called “gag order” a.k.a “non-disclosure agreement”, which may come as part of the settlement.

The high probability of having to sign the “gag order” was the major reason why I wouldn’t have pursued litigation even if I’d known that I’d had a solid case for it, which I hadn’t. I’d heard the stories of survivors of abuse by therapists who had signed the “gag order” as part of their legal settlement with the perpetrators and deeply regretted it later. For some of them, the “gag order” silenced them for life, as it didn’t allow them to talk about the case with anybody even in general terms without naming names. If I had to name one of the major factors in healing trauma of any kind, telling one’s story to others would be it. Taking away someone’s ability to tell their story is to deprive them of one of the most important healing agents. I could never allow that to happen to me.

An additional factor that made filing a board complaint more appealing to me was the fact that, in general, by comparison with litigation, boards’ proceedings are much less stressful on the one who files a complaint.

The only painful part of that entire experience for me was the actual writing process when I was trying to describe what happened in my harmful therapy, which brought back traumatic memories. Once the complaint was put together and sent out, the stressful part was over.

The subsequent interview with the board investigator was very benign and from the moment the interview was over the rest of the process and its outcome was completely out of my control, which is something everyone who chooses to file a complaint needs to be aware of – the licensing board investigation and its outcome will be out of your control. I imagine (though I don’t know from personal experience) that you can’t have much control over the litigation either once you entrust your attorney with your case.

This is the crucial point I want to highlight. Whether you decide to file a lawsuit or board complaint, if you want the process of pursuing justice make a difference in your recovery, you need to be prepared to accept any outcome. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t make an effort to achieve the results you want. By all means, use all the resources you have, your intelligence and your righteous anger to serve justice as you see fit. After all, this is why you chose to go through this process in the first place. BUT, make the process itself more important for your healing than the results, because from what I’ve experienced myself and what I’ve seen others go through, I can affirmatively tell you that if you make your recovery dependent on whether you could “properly” punish those who wronged you, you will never recover.

I’ve encountered some victims of harmful therapy and abusive therapists who, sadly, made a choice to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of becoming “justice warriors”. At some point you will have to decide what is more important for you to focus and to spend your energy on: endlessly pursuing justice, as you see it, or improving your health and the quality of your life. The choice is yours and yours only.


2 thoughts on “Filing Complaint vs. Suing a Therapist Who Committed Ethical Violations”

  1. Many years ago when I had a harmful verbal experience, I learned that it would be possible to complain to a professional board or the the state licensing board or both. I am not confrontational (which is something that might have been addressed in therapy but never was) and I never filed an actual complaint. Recently, I looked at state licensing board information again, and I think that based on the way the guidelines are written today, filing a complaint through the state board could be a good alternative. Even though I did not lodge a formal complaint, I was able to decide clearly to stop therapy before things got worse. This required some confrontation, and in doing so, I think that I protected myself from harm.

    While I talked about my experience to some subsequent therapists, I felt that this was generally unproductive. What I believe was missing was a focus on what might work to make me feel better about this. They really wanted to talk about it for a short while and then drop it. I worried for a long time about doing the right thing, and about getting closure. Was it my job to protect others, I wondered.

    I really think that the way you have listed the alternatives and explained that each person needs to make the choice about what might be best for him/her is clear and helpful. Since I have been reading your posts, I am feeling that walking out when I did was a good choice, although not the only choice, and that provides some closure.

    1. I am glad to hear that you were able to get some sort of closure just by leaving the destructive situation without taking any further action. It is crucial for people to know that there is no “right” solution that works for everyone and that what brings closure to one person won’t do the same for the other. I’ve talked to people who, like you, never had the need to file a formal complaint and who just walked away. I’ve also talked to those who felt that it’d be impossible for them to heal unless they fought for justice and taking action did become part of their recovery. I am one of those people. There are also those who choose to write a review of the therapist as a way to right the wrong. I did that too. Some write their stories and publish it on their blogs or as a book or make it known otherwise, and that too becomes part of the healing process.

      I don’t believe anyone has an obligation to protect others by pushing themselves to initiate legal or civic action when they don’t feel like it. I don’t think anything good comes out of false sense of obligation and guilt. Help has to come organically from genuine desire, not from self-pressure. I believe, by posting topics on this website I am helping people who find themselves in harmful situations much more than if I were trying to strip my ex-therapist off his license. Revoking someone’s license, as necessary as it may be at the moment, won’t bring fundamental changes of the system but education would. If clients become more informed they’d be able to recognize harmful methods and reject them much sooner, and the more people reject bad and harmful service the sooner the entire foundation of the system would change.

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