Trial Court settles woman’s sex harassment case against Northampton judge for $425K

  • Judge Thomas Estes presides in Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown on March 21, 2016. DON TREEGER/THE REPUBLICAN VIA AP

Staff Writer
Monday, February 07, 2022

NORTHAMPTON — The Massachusetts Trial Court has settled a lawsuit brought by a licensed clinical social worker who alleged that Thomas Estes, the former presiding judge of Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, sexually harassed her and “made her” perform oral sex in his chambers and at her home.

An attorney for plaintiff Tammy Cagle confirmed the settlement for $425,000 on Thursday.

“Ms. Cagle is gratified that the Trial Court recognized that what happened to her should never have happened,” Leonard Kesten said. Kesten, of Boston, represented Cagle in her Suffolk Superior Court lawsuit against the state trial court system.

The settlement does not affect a separate federal lawsuit Cagle filed against Estes, now scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in Springfield on March 7.

Cagle was a clinician with Behavioral Health Network, which contracted with the state to launch a drug court program at Pittsfield District Court in 2016. She sued the state Trial Court for employment discrimination in 2019, accusing Estes, who sat in Pittsfield one day per week, of coercing her into a months-long sexual relationship that left her feeling “degraded and humiliated.”

The lawsuit alleged that Estes, who was married with two teenage sons, created a hostile work environment and retaliated against Cagle with poor workplace treatment when she said she wanted to end the encounters. She was ultimately reassigned from the drug court to a lower-paying job and has since moved out of state.

Estes has not been charged with any crimes and he has stated that the sexual acts were consensual. He did not respond to a request for comment left with his law practice in Northampton.

“This has been a very emotional time for (Cagle),” Kesten said. “She started this without a lawyer and she was terrified to take on a judge and the Trial Court. And she’s been vindicated.”

Jennifer Donahue, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Trial Court, declined to comment.

Cagle exposed the relationship in a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 2017.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court publicly censured Estes in March 2018 and suspended him from the bench indefinitely, finding that his “unwillingness to abide by the standards imposed on his office brought the office of the Judge, and by extension, the judiciary, into disrepute.”

Estes resigned the following day. He had asked the court for a four-month suspension, along with other sanctions including a public censure and a ban on sitting in specialty courts.

In filings with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, Estes’ attorneys admitted that he had “engaged in serious misconduct” and felt “great shame and remorse,” but, “he adamantly denies that this relationship constituted sexual harassment as that term is used in Massachusetts law, or in any generic understanding of the term. … [T]his conduct was not unwanted, but was in fact aggressively pursued by Ms. Cagle from start to finish.”

Estes cast Cagle as “a poor employee who was removed from the drug court due to an inability to work with others” and said he had no authority over her at work.

A former public defender, Estes was appointed to a judgeship in Northampton District Court in 2014, then served as First Justice in Eastern Hampshire District Court from February 2016 through August 2017. At the time of his resignation, he had been reassigned to administrative duties and legal research in Holyoke District Court.