A former teacher who was accused — and later exonerated — of providing prescription drugs to a student sued CVS in Essex Superior Court on Friday, arguing that the pharmacy chain violated her privacy rights by releasing her prescription history to police without a warrant.
In 2015, prosecutors in Essex County alleged that while Elizabeth Backler was a teacher and coach at North Andover High School, she provided oxycodone and other drugs to a student athlete who was experiencing shoulder pain.
The high-profile case touched on issues of opioid abuse and student-teacher relationships. But it was dropped late last year after a judge ruled that a key piece of evidence — Backler’s CVS prescription history, showing she had been prescribed oxycodone and diazepam in July 2013 — could not be presented in court, because police obtained the records from pharmacists at a local CVS without a warrant.
The state eventually agreed to dismiss the case, in part because of the barred evidence, according to Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for the Essex district attorney’s office.
Now Backler, 29, is suing CVS and the pharmacists, who have not been named, accusing them of violating privacy laws and pharmacy regulations by providing the information to police. She says the pharmacists’ decision to provide the records resulted in her arrest — effectively ending her career as a teacher, putting a “severe detrimental impact on her earning capacity,” and causing “extreme situational depression and anxiety.”
Rhode Island-based CVS said it was not aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment further because “this matter may be subject to pending litigation.”
By the time Backler was charged, she had left North Andover High and was working at a school in Amesbury. She was forced to resign from that position and has been unable to obtain teaching work since, according to the suit. Backler’s attorney, David H. Rich, said Backler is working “odd jobs,” including teaching spin classes.
“But for CVS’s conduct, we do not think we’d be where we are today,” Rich said in an interview. “There would have been no charges.”
Rich wrote to CVS chief executive Larry Merlo in February, outlining the case and demanding $2.5 million in relief for Backler.
CVS responded to Rich in March, in a letter from outside counsel Ellen Epstein Cohen.
Cohen wrote in the letter that CVS did not believe it had violated privacy laws because Massachusetts rules provide some exceptions from pharmacy regulations. Cohen also said that if CVS had not given officials the prescription history, “law enforcement almost certainly would have obtained this information through some other means” that would have been admissable in court.
The charges against Backler stemmed from a broader investigation into a potential “inappropriate” relationship between Backler and the student, which allegedly involved text messaging and gift exchanges, according to Cohen’s letter and to statements from prosecutors at the time.
Cohen argued those allegations are the real reason for Backler’s trouble, because they prompted the investigation that resulted in drug charges. Backler’s financial and emotional struggles “are all the direct result of Ms. Backler’s own actions and the response by education and law enforcement authorities to her actions,” Cohen wrote.
In an interview, Rich said that argument is irrelevant because the only charges to come from the investigation were related to the drugs. Backler maintains that she did not provide pills to the student, and disputes the characterization of the relationship with the student as inappropriate, Rich said.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.