Steven Atwood, VMD, resigned his position in April as chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Registration in Veterinary Medicine after a local news station raised questions about a four-year-old lawsuit involving a number of large checks Atwood received from a client. Although the lawsuit was decided in Atwood's favor in 2008, the media attention led to Atwood's resignation and an investigation by the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure, which oversees all state boards.
In early April, Boston-based Fox 25 reporter Mike Beaudet attended a state veterinary board meeting and asked questions about the lawsuit, which Atwood refused to answer. The suit was filed in 2006 against Atwood, founder of Animal Health Care Associates in West Tisbury, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, by Timothy Goodman, the son of Atwood's client and friend Jean Knowles Goodman. At issue was a series of checks totaling $56,100 written by Jean Goodman to Atwood between September and November 2004, according to court documents.
Dorothy Herlinger, Jean Goodman's bookkeeper, brought these "very unusual" payments to the attention of Timothy Goodman but did not question her employer about them because "in her experience, Mrs. Goodman did not like to be questioned about her decisions," the Dukes County Superior Court decision reads.
Timothy Goodman alleges in the lawsuit that his mother lacked the requisite mental capacity to make such gifts and that Atwood exercised undue influence over her, causing her to issue the checks against her free will.
Four days after the last check to Atwood was written, Jean Goodman's children admitted their mother to Martha's Vineyard Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, according to the decision. She was examined by Charles Silberstein, MD, who concluded she was suffering from "alcohol dependence and likely dementia."
After Silberstein's findings, the court granted guardianship of Jean Goodman to her children, and Timothy Goodman brought the lawsuit against Atwood. Jean Goodman's daughter, Jean McIntosh, was originally listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit but later resigned and testified on behalf of Atwood, says Rosemarie Haigazian, Atwood's lawyer, to whom he referred all questions.
Atwood claimed the checks were "gifts made in appreciation of his friendship and history of providing veterinary care for Mrs. Goodman's dogs," the decision states. Haigazian says Jean Goodman would call Atwood early in the morning to come over and reapply bandages to her poodle or just walk the dog. The decision reports that during the time Jean Goodman was writing the checks, Atwood visited 20 to 25 times—some of the visits were related to the dog but some "appear to have been purely social."
Atwood was cleared by the court because Timothy Goodman could not prove his mother lacked the capacity to make donations, that the payments were a product of undue influence or that Atwood was being overly compensated for veterinary services. But the decision does say Atwood's acceptance of the checks "raises question as to his ethics" and said it was a "troubling case, particularly because it should have been apparent to Dr. Atwood by September 18, 2004, when he personally accepted his first checks from Mrs. Goodman, that this elderly woman was suffering from some sort of mental illness."
In the meantime, the state's investigation of Atwood is ongoing. "The Division of Professional Licensure decided to open a staff assignment because the allegations warranted a further look," spokeswoman Jayda Leder-Luis told dvm360. "The investigation is looking to verify whether the allegations raised against Atwood can be substantiated."
Leder-Luis refused to answer further questions about the investigation, including why the division decided to investigate four years after Atwood was cleared of the allegations in Dukes County Superior Court.