Can you have sex with your psychotherapist and what is the statute of limitation for malpractice ?

therapy 2In matters of psychotherapy, a patient is in a fragile and vulnerable state where their decisions and acts may lack proper competency and a psychotherapist is in a position of power and/or authority to some extent. The issue for determination in Roe v. Jefferson, 875 S.W.2d 653 was whether the plaintiff Jane Roe’s action was barred by the statute of limitations for medical malpractice actions,Tenn.Code Ann. § 29–26–116, under the facts of her case.  During the summer of 1984, Roe was advised by her physician, Dr. Jones Moore, to seek psychological and/or mental health treatment because for several long-standing physical ailments from which she suffered. Roe chose Dr. David Jefferson from a number of providers that Dr. Moore had recommended.  In August 1984, Roe and Jefferson began a therapist-patient relationship.Roe disclosed to him that she had been the victim of a rape in 1972. Roe was diagnosed with “adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features.” The initial part of treatment continued until March 1986, when the treatment ended per agreement.  However,  facts showed Roe continued her visits to Dr. Jefferson on a regular basis through October 1987.

The Plaintiff testified at deposition that the therapist-patient relationship became sexually charged in early 1987 when he began hugging her at the conclusion of the sessions. The relationship developed into a sexual affair which began in November 1987 and continued until February 24, 1989.  Roe and Dr. Jefferson engaged in sex in Jefferson’s office, in his car, and in a motel in Davidson County.  The record demonstrated that Plaintiff was informed by Dr. Jefferson of an investigation by a licensing board into a previous relationship with a patient.  He informed Roe that it was not appropriate to have such sexual relationships in certain circumstances.  However, he informed her that he loved her and it was different.  Roe learned from him that in 1988 he was having relationships with other women this caused the relationship to have difficulties.  Roe stated that she suffered emotional abuse from him as he hear she would report him to the licensing board and that she could not escape from him.

Roe brought an action against Dr. Jefferson on February 23, 1990, for medical malpractice; the complaint essentially alleged that Dr. Jefferson had abused the doctor-patient relationship by engaging in a sexual relationship with Roe.  Dr. Jefferson filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Roe’s action was barred by the one-year statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases because she either knew or reasonably should have known of the wrongful conduct and resulting injury before February 23, 1989.  Roe filed a response to the motion for summary judgment, which included several affidavits from mental health professionals regarding the unique nature of the therapist-patient relationship. An affidavit given by Jeanne Brownlee, Roe’s primary therapist, stated that because of a phenomenon called “transference” which occurs in a therapist-patient relationship, Roe could not have known that she was injured until the middle to latter months of 1989, when Brownlee informed her she had been abused.

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court. In so doing, the Court emphasized the unique nature of the therapist-patient relationship and the phenomenon of “transference” which occurs in that relationship.  The Court, relying on the expert testimony submitted by Roe, stated that the term “transference” refers to the process whereby the patient transfers to the therapist all the unresolved issues of his or her life; in effect, the patient forms a relationship with the therapist akin to that of parent and child.Dr. Jefferson argued that the Court of Appeals erred in applying the discovery rule because the evidence is undisputed that Roe knew in October 1988—the date of the McGee hearing—that sex in the therapist-patient relationship constituted a violation of the Board’s regulations governing therapists, and could result in the loss of the therapist’s license.Roe countered by asserting that the transference phenomenon precluded her from realizing what was happening to her. The Supreme Court accepted the writ and held that when a plaintiff receives notice from a qualified mental health professional that sex in the context of a therapist-patient relationship is harmful, the plaintiff will be deemed to have discovered the right of action as a matter of law. Applying this reasoning to the present situation, the Court held that Roe was possessed of sufficient information to put her on notice as a matter of law.

About Roland

Roland was born in Nashville, Tennessee and raised in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. The first few years he resided in Paris, France with his mother who was French. In Hendersonville, he attended Beech Senior High School where played soccer and studied in the honors curriculum. Subsequently, he pursued two majors in political science and economics while graduating in three years.

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