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.


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18 Comments  comments 

18 Responses

  1. anonymous

    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.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      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.

  2. anonymous

    When a patient ends therapy before the therapist has suggested that termination is a good idea, the therapist may express anger or disappointment in a negative way and even warn the patient that terminating will harm him – in some circumstances that might be true, but in most cases it is not. I was told “I would never get better”, but I knew that the therapy I was in was actually making me worse and that this was an idle threat from someone who did not want to lose a patient. I had discussed my concerns and things did improve briefly, but overall there was not much improvement.

    I am wondering if any of the readers you have heard from have encountered verbal retaliation when leaving therapy or when taking further action. My experience happened twenty years ago, and as I age, one advantage is that I am more able to ignore derogatory, defensive comments in any circumstance. But I am wondering how others have coped with negative comments in this type of situation if they have encountered them.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Here is the story of a client who had experienced emotional blackmail very similar to what you are describing when she informed her therapists that she was done and was going to leave She says that the therapists said something to the effect that she’d never get better, something similar to what you’d heard.

      I’ve read some cases reporting the same thing, but, to be honest,those are not the most common stories I’ve heard or read about harmful therapy. Most of the time it’s actually the opposite, it’s the case when the client develops an obsessive attachment to the therapist and is unable to leave on their own even when they understand that the situation is hurting them. Those people end up being abandoned by their therapists with no subsequent help and no information of where to look for help. Those are the types of cases I am most familiar with.

      In your case, it’s completely unethical for a therapist, IMO, to say to a client “you’d never get better”. Who ever says that to anyone, least of all therapists who are supposed to operate on the higher level of consciousness? It’s so cruel and hurtful for anyone to utter those words to another human being, and when a therapist says something like that they are not fit to practice IMO. I am sorry you had to hear those awful words in therapy.

      This has not been my experience, but it seems that the way to cope with such hurtful comments would be similar to how people cope with bullies. The only way to negate their effect, as I see it, is to develop unconditional self-acceptance and confidence. This is no small task and not an easy thing to do, but that’s the direction to go I think.

  3. Sue

    Thank you for this post. It’s completely right-on. And timely for me as I just finally finished my complaint (not filing a suit) and will be taking a deep breath and filing it. I think your point about there essentially being nothing to lose in filing a complaint except, worst case, being disappointed in the outcome is complete gold. I suffered for years in the therapy and for years sorting it out. Filing a complaint feels like a way to move some of the freaking responsibility onto the perpetrator vs doing all the healing inside.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Hi Sue,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad my post has felt like validation of your decision to file a complaint and I do hope that your action will contribute into your healing process. It was a contributing factor in mine so I am happy that I did what I did even though it didn’t exactly bring the results I wished for. Best of luck to you in your recovery.

      • Sue

        Hi Marina and thank you for your response! Can you share what happened with your complaint and if its impact (or not) on you? Would you do it again looking back?

        • Marina Tonkonogy

          Sure. The board completed the investigation, they found the therapist guilty of several ethical violations and they reached the settlement in which he was able to retain his license but the license was put on probation for several years. In addition, he was ordered to repay the full cost of the investigation, to complete a course on laws and ethics as well as a certain number of sessions of his personal therapy and to submit monthly reports about his practice to the supervising person or agency..don’t remember exactly. He was also ordered to inform all his new clients and the place of his employment about his probation status. At this point, I believe, he has completed all the requirements and cleaned his record. I would’ve preferred for his license to have gotten revoked but it is what it is. I am quite at peace with this outcome. His misconduct was not as severe as that of your former therapist. Also, I didn’t have enough of hard evidence to prove many of the allegations because I never intended to take any action while I was still seeing him and so the thought of collecting anything that could get him in trouble didn’t even cross my mind. I had some phone and text messages, emails and his own therapy notes in which, ironically, he implicated himself by describing some of the things he said and did that were unethical. Apparently, he had no clue that those things were unethical, otherwise he wouldn’t have mentioned them.

          As I said, I am at peace with the outcome because it does feel like some justice has been served though not to the extend I would want. Also, as I mentioned in my comment to the other post, the process of writing and sending the complaint in itself felt like a big relief because I had made the decision to accept any outcome and had told myself that I was doing this primarily for my healing, not to pursue justice at any cost. I felt that just by filing a complaint I was standing up for myself and that felt empowering regardless of the outcome.

  4. Sue

    Thanks so much for your response, Marina. I am glad that some strong actions were taken (perhaps not strong enough) but you stood up for yourself and, as you say, it felt empowering regardless. I was thinking this morning about what you gain incrementally beyond just writing the complaint vs.writing it *and* filing it and I think the word “empowered” sounds key. If you have any thoughts about your experience–the difference between writing and filing vs just writing–would love to hear but you’ve already been really generous with your responses!

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      I think, writing AND filing for me was especially important because just writing would feel more like journaling to me. While journaling is generally therapeutic, in that particular case, doing only that wouldn’t have given me the feeling of empowerment that I needed at that time more than anything. It’s the act of filing that helped me feel more empowered and the empowerment it brought became a major factor that contributed into my recovery. On another level writing and filing felt like dumping the burden, the load that didn’t belong to me off my shoulders. The misconduct belonged to the therapist, not to me, but as long as I suffered the effect of his misconduct in silence it felt like I was carrying the burden that he should’ve been carrying. I felt like the only way for me to release that load and to put it in its proper place where it belonged (on the therapist) was to make an effort to hold him accountable. The effort itself was more important to me than the result. I knew that if I made my well-being dependent on the results of the board’s investigation I would give my power away to the external circumstances that I couldn’t control and that would not be an empowering position to take.

  5. Sue

    THANK you. So freaking right ON!! I’ve been feeling what you expressed so succinctly–moving the responsibility over to the right place. It is stunning to me the amount of emotional work/healing that needs to be done to get there. I also hit this place of being so damn sick and tired of “journaling” and felt that something new needed to happen. I process things in a “Sandboxian” way and it feels like I washed up on the same shore as you–just in a different way =>

    Again, thank you so much Marina for your wisdom, clarity and for making all of this public. Yes, yes, yes!!

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Thank YOU for the kind words! Feedback like yours gives me the motivation to keep working on the website when I know that it’s needed and that it may be the only source for some people to get validation of their traumatic experiences and, hopefully, some guidance on how to heal from it. So, I am glad that Therapy Consumer Guide is fulfilling its purpose. I welcome any suggestions for new topics that have not yet been discussed here and that people want to know more about. Again, thanks for the feedback.

  6. Sue

    Okay…I have a (timely) topic suggestion: “Tips for letting go of any expectations after you hit “submit” and sent your complaint. And other ideas for making the most for having sent off your complaint.” Thank you! P.S. I just hit submit. Can’t believe it. It took two tries–the first try I just got too scared. But…an hour later…I did it.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Perfect! This is an amazing question because it pushed me quite deep actually as I started to think about it. Funny, just yesterday I was thinking about writing a new post on how to make the most out of your complaint and to increase the chance that it’d be taken seriously and that the justice will be served. And now I am getting this question from you 🙂 and the other one on how to let go of expectations of the good outcome-this one requires a bit of reflecting because, as I said, this topic goes deep and my answer may feel a bit controversial for some people, but that’s what makes it interesting to think and to write about.. So, yeah, awesome! Thanks. I’ll try to produce something by the end of the next week.

      Big congrats on your hitting the submit button! Wow. That’s a BIG step! How does that feel? You have every reason to be proud of yourself. I understand why it’s a good time for you to work on letting go of your expectations. Depending on where you live your next step may be talking to the investigator either on the phone or in person. But before that, the board may evaluate the complaint in terms of its seriousness and whether it warrants investigation. That’s what happened to me, but, again, the process varies from state to state.

  7. Sue

    Hi Marina! Can’t wait to see what you write. I think giving people tips on how to structure the writing of the complaint would be awesome. It took me, from the time it occurred to me to do until hitting send, about…four months. I had a brief cover page and then the complaint was about thirty pages done in chronological sections. Since the therapy and the abuse needed to all be put into context it was somewhat long, including email evidence which supported the narrative.

    Do you know in California how quickly the therapist gets notified and gets a copy of the complaint?

    I have no idea if what happened to me is considered serious or not. This makes it really frustrating. Like you pointed out, sexual abuse is horrific–no doubt. But then the emotional stuff that is less blatant makes you wonder over and over and over again if you’re crazy for not being able to heal quickly–and also for filing the complaint. I tried very hard in my complaint to be objective and hoped that the lack of boundaries and poor judgement would speak for themselves. As well as the emails–like the poem she wrote to me where she wrote: “How could I be so heartless? I don’t know–I wonder myself.”

    Presently I feel disoriented, like I’m living in a new land. It’s surreal and I’ve had a few waves of “what have I done” but so far no true regrets. I wrote about it in the Sandbox the next day:

    I’m considering making a main category of my site just on the entries I had leading up to the filing of the complaint since it was a real haul for me to finally do it.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Hi Sue. I am almost done with the new post. I may upload it today or tomorrow. Surprisingly, it’s turning out being a longer one than I expected.

      It took me 6 months to finish my complaint. I could only write a paragraph or so at a time and then I needed a few days break. It also took quite some time to sort through all the evidence I had because all of that stuff was emotionally trigerring as you can imagine.

      I don’t know how quickly they notified my therapist but I was notified within 10 days of their receipt of my complaint. I believe my therapist was notified a couple of months later because at about the same time I was scheduled to have an interview with the investigator.

      I believe emotional abuse by therapist may be more harmful in the long run than blatant sexual abuse because it’s more incidious, which makes it much harder for the victim to get support and validation from others (no disrespect whatsoever to all the victims of sexual abuse in therapy).It makes you feel crazy and as if you were making something up and if your case was not worthy of reporting and so on. I know exactly how it feels so I can certainly relate to you feeling disoriented right now. Do not regret what you have done for a moment. It was a courageous thing to do regardless of how it turns out. I am glad you are writing about your experiences on the blog. The more of such stories come out the better. When others read them it helps them feel less crazy.

      • Sue

        Awesome, Marina. Looking forward to your post. Also it’s good to feel validated in terms of how long it can take to write a complaint. I am feeling–only a few days out–so much more room emotionally. Or put another way, my god this woman was taking up a lot of space. Filing the complaint, if it does nothing other than give me the room I’m getting it was worth it (like you were saying–if you get something out of it in your process you win regardless of results.) On my website I laid out, just by trying to be authentic with feelings, the back/forth it can take in one’s mind as you go through first the consideration of filing, then drafting, then completing and then, for me, consciously, about two weeks after the complaint was pretty much done, trying to decide. I remember the weekend I’d crossed the bridge and decided to file-it was very, very emotional. I think all these phases are likely universal and natural. Anyway…so so so glad for this website and connection!!! Oh, regarding when the therapist is notified I think you’re right about that–it may not be until an analyst gets to it which can be a couple of months.

        • Marina Tonkonogy

          You can read the new post now. Feel free to comment and to ask questions if something isn’t clear. I may go back and edit it a bit later as it looks a little choppy right now. I often do that by the way. My initial posts may look different some time later. Just so you know..

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