The presiding judge of Belchertown District Court is under investigation by the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission after a former court employee accused him of pressuring her for oral sex.
Judge Thomas Estes, who was removed from hearing cases without explanation in August, admitted having a sexual relationship with Tammy Cagle, a clinical social worker, according to a signed statement he submitted to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Cagle, who worked at the Pittsfield drug court where Estes sat once a week, filed a sexual harassment complaint against the executive office of the Trial Court in July.
In her complaint, Cagle, who worked for a social service agency that contracted with the court, said she became involved with Estes when they attended a conference in 2016. She said she felt coerced to perform sex acts and that when she tried to break off the relationship he told her “it would be worse for me if someone found out.”
Estes, 50, who was appointed by then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2014, was not available for comment. His lawyer, David Hoose, said only that “Judge Estes is cooperating with the appropriate agencies in the investigation.” In August, Estes was reassigned to administrative duties in Holyoke, where he remains, according to trial court spokeswoman Jennifer Donahue.
The Judicial Conduct Commission on Monday issued a rare press release acknowledging the investigation, saying it was independent of the MCAD investigation.
The judge came under fire last year for showing leniency to sex offenders. Thousands of people signed an online petition calling for his removal after he sentenced to probation a former star athlete who admitted assaulting two unconscious women at a party. Prosecutors were seeking two years in jail for the defendant, David Becker. Estes also was the subject of controversy after he declined to order an ankle bracelet as a condition of bail for a girls’ basketball coach accused of masturbating in a Holyoke Mall store.
In its answer to Cagle’s complaint, the trial court argued the relationship was consensual and said there is nothing illegal about “sexual relationships between individuals in the same workplace. Here, the evidence will demonstrate that Ms. Cagle initiated this relationship with the presiding judge, welcomed the behavior, and continued to pursue this relationship even after she moved out of state.”
The labor lawyers working for the trial court apparently did not consult top court officials before filing that response. It was those top officials who, concerned about the allegations against the judge, lodged the complaint against Estes with the Judicial Conduct Commission, according to two sources with direct knowledge.
Donahue, the court spokeswoman, said the “trial court plans to amend its filing when the ongoing investigation is completed.”
In her complaint — in which she is seeking nothing other than a finding that she was harassed — Cagle said that after the conference, the judge continued to ask for oral sex in his chambers even though both of them admitted their actions at the conference were wrong.
“He shut the door, closed the blinds and wanted to continue what happened in the hotel room,” said Cagle, who now works at a Georgia prison, in an interview. “I told him, ‘No. I didn’t think it was a good idea.’ He started begging me.”
She said that he promised to help her with problems at work and that he would never ask for sex again. But that’s not what happened, she said.
“He was taking my hand and placing it on his genitals,” she said in the interview. “You couldn’t say no to him.”
Cagle, 47, was transferred from her job by her employer, the Behavioral Health Network, to a job in Springfield; she eventually resigned and moved to Georgia. She believes she was reassigned because of her relationship with Estes, though her employer never told her so. “I was let go because of him,” she said.
After she moved out of state, she visited the judge in the Belchertown court once “to try to resolve the situation.” Again he closed the door and pulled down the shades, she said. “I was able to say about two words before he began unbuttoning his pants,” she said.
“I just wanted closure,” she said. “I had to leave the state. Everybody loved him, which is one of the reasons I didn’t turn on him sooner. I felt I was alone. “
Boston lawyer Lenny Kesten, who is representing Cagle, said “victims should not be left to fight these fights alone so I have agreed to fight for her. It is always difficult for a woman to take on a powerful man.”
The Berkshire Eagle first reported the allegations against Estes over the weekend.
Sexual harassment experts doubted that sex between a presiding judge and a relatively low level court worker could ever be considered consensual.
“It’s going to be rare that a court will find there was a true consensual relationship when the person initiating the relationship is in a position of power over the other individual,” said Harold Lichten, a Boston labor lawyer.
Ellen Messing, a plaintiffs’ employment and labor lawyer, said certain relationships can never be truly consensual.
“I believe [Estes] was sincere in saying he believed it was consensual. A lot of powerful men believe the kind of relationship they have with subordinates is consensual — for them. They’re looking at it from their own point of view,” Messing said.
Lichten said that even more problematic is the fact that the judge was making decisions on drug treatment placements for defendants based on Cagle’s recommendations.
“If he’s having a sexual relationship with a woman appearing in the court, it puts in potential jeopardy any determinations he made for those people,” said Lichten. “That’s totally inappropriate.”
Cagle also filed a complaint against her employer, Behavioral Health Network, a social service agency based in Springfield. In its response, the agency’s lawyer said Cagle never spoke to her supervisors about sexual impropriety or harassment. They said Cagle was removed from her job because probation officers had complained about her, not for any other reason.
Cagle disputes that assertion, saying that she always received good performance evaluations and that many employees had difficulty working with the probation department, not just her.
The Judicial Conduct Commission has authority to take disciplinary action against a judge, ranging from private sanctions to a hearing, where allegations are aired publicly. The commission cannot remove a judge, though the threat of a public hearing will sometimes persuade a judge to resign.
Only the Legislature can remove a judge for misconduct. The governor and Governor’s Council can retire a judge for mental or physical disability before the mandatory retirement age of 70, according to the Judicial Conduct Commission.