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Romantic patient-therapist relationship at VA leads to suit

At first, it was just cards, letters and voicemails. But over time, Kenneth Zeranti's declarations of love turned to crystal sculptures and 3 1/2-foot-high floral arrangements.

Erica L. Sargent, his psychotherapist and the object of his affections, resisted the advances, but eventually became intimately involved with the man she was counseling at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo, she admitted in court papers.

Sargent went so far as to tell Zeranti "she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him," according to the documents.

Six years later, their now-defunct relationship is at the center of a civil lawsuit pitting patient against therapist and seeking $1.7 million in damages.

A federal judge, in a decision earlier this month, pointed to Sargent's relationship with Zeranti and the VA's role in supervising her in rejecting their efforts to dismiss the suit.

"This intimate personal relationship involved more than sexual intercourse between a psychotherapist and her patient," Zeranti's lawyer said in court papers. "Dr. Sargent spoke to the plaintiff in terms of a long-term relationship with him. She introduced the plaintiff to her daughters, and the plaintiff and Dr. Sargent made plans together to visit her family in another state."

Zeranti's lawyer said Sargent ended the relationship abruptly, less than two weeks after it started, sending his client into "severe and debilitating depression."

At the heart of the suit is the allegation that Sargent and the VA mismanaged Zeranti's emotional dependence on his therapist. In short, both were negligent, the suit claims.

"This dependency has been referred to as transference phenomenon and in the course of plaintiff's treatment with Dr. Sargent, this dependency took hold," Zeranti's lawyer said in court papers.

A patient at the VA since 1987, Zeranti was diagnosed with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder and is currently on Social Security disability and Medicare.

Until 2011, he saw a different therapist at the Bailey Avenue facility, but the therapist retired and Sargent took over. By all accounts, she counseled Zeranti without incident until early 2013 when he began to show signs of affection for her.

Staff members started noticing cards and gifts sent by Zeranti, and others overheard him referring to his therapist as "hot Dr. Sargent."

"Mr. Zeranti called my voicemail so often, he would fill the mailbox to capacity, thereby preventing other clients from leaving messages," Sargent said in an affidavit.

Sargent said she sought guidance from peers at the VA and repeatedly tried to set boundaries with Zeranti.

"Mr. Zeranti told me that he needed me and only me for his life to be fulfilled and for him to be happy," she said in the affidavit. "I remember telling Mr. Zeranti that a therapist was like a coach, available to guide him and not to be his friend and certainly never his girlfriend."

In May of 2013, according to court papers, Sargent, dressed in a trench coat and hat, met Zeranti at a coffee shop away from the VA and later, during a rendezvous at a nearby park, kissed him.

Zeranti claims they met again a few days later as part of a therapy session and ended the session by hugging and kissing in her office. Later in the week, they had sex at his house for the first time, he claims.

"He asked his daughter to promise not to say anything because there was so much at stake, telling her that Dr. Sargent could lose her job," U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford said in her decision allowing the case to move forward.

Sargent ended the relationship less than two weeks after it started and Zeranti responded by informing her supervisors of their relationship.

"Only after the plaintiff became emotionally and physically dependent upon Dr. Sargent did she terminate their relationship without warning and in an abrupt manner," Donald W. O'Brien Jr., Zeranti's lawyer, said in court papers.

The VA put Sargent on administrative leave shortly after Zeranti informed them of the relationship, and she resigned the following month.

In rejecting the VA's motion to dismiss the case, Wolford pointed to Sargent's failure to keep adequate notes of her therapy sessions and the absence of any notes from her last 15 sessions with Zeranti.

The judge raised the possibility that Sargent's lack of note taking, and the VA's failure to crack down on her, allowed her to keep her relationship with Zeranti a secret.

The VA, in court papers, countered by suggesting Sargent's affair with Zeranti was personal, and pointed to their sexual relationship, the time they spent at each other's homes and the fact that they met each other's daughters.

"Dr. Sargent's consensual affair with plaintiff was done for wholly personal reasons," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. Cerrone said in court papers.

Lawyers for Zeranti, Sargent and the VA declined to comment on the judge's decision to allow the case to continue.

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