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Placey claims CTE from college sports impaired his behavior in response to judicial discipline charges
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Cumberland County

Placey claims CTE from college sports impaired his behavior in response to judicial discipline charges

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Update: Johns Hopkins' athletic office confirmed to The Sentinel on Friday that a Tom Placey played football for the university in 1981 and 1982.

In a court briefing filed Wednesday evening, Cumberland County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Placey claimed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, related to his college sports career is to blame for the erratic behavior that has resulted in disciplinary charges being levied against him in the state’s judicial review court.

Placey’s briefing was submitted to the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline in response to charges filed last month by the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, which had launched a monthslong investigation of multiple instances in which Placey’s alleged ill-temperament in the courtroom violated that state’s legal standards.

Those allegations carry significant implications, not only for Placey’s personal standing but also for the cases that the conduct board says Placey handled improperly and that he failed to ensure were fully heard before issuing a ruling.

The investigation was centered, at least in part, on the marital settlement case of Monroe Township resident Tony Samento, which was overturned on appeal last year by a ruling in which the Pennsylvania Superior Court took Placey to task for his questionable behavior and poor jurisprudence.

In his filing this week, Placey mostly admitted to the conduct board’s allegations regarding the Samento case and others referenced in the filing of charges.

The reason for his erratic behavior, according to Placey’s filing, is CTE, a degenerative brain condition linked to repeated head trauma.

“By way of further clarification, Judge Placey recognized a change in his impulsive behavioral control beginning in late 2018 and early 2019, well before the Judicial Conduct Board’s investigation began,” Placey’s attorney, Heidi Eakin, wrote this week.

“In August 2017, Judge Placey received notices from the NCAA of the potential for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), believed to be linked to concussions he had suffered during his academic career related to collegiate sports,” Eakin continued.

Placey said he discussed this issue with his primary care doctor, and “as of 2020, he is an enrolled member of the NCAA Concussion Management Medical Monitoring Program that is begin established as part of the NCAA settlement.”

“As a direct result of the perceived temperament changes, Judge Placey sought professional assistance from ‘Judges Concerning for Judges’ in April 2019,” Eakin wrote. “This continuous commitment to treatment and improvement aids him in reducing frustration and containing emotional reactions. This course of treatment has allowed him to develop the additional skills necessary to de-escalate internally, without litigants’ knowledge, otherwise frustrating courtroom situations.”

An organization called Judges Concerned for Judges has a Pennsylvania chapter and website in which it describes mental health services and support for the state’s judiciary.

Pennsylvania’s Court of Judicial Discipline has eight justices, who have the power to call hearings and trial sessions to adjudicate the charges brought forth by the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board and the accused judge.

The board has the power to issue sanctions, including fines, suspensions and removal from the bench in the most severe cases.

When Placey ran for the common pleas judge’s seat in 2011, his biography stated that he graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1984. 

Johns Hopkins athletic records show a Tom Placey having played football for the Blue Jays in 1981 and 1982, the Hopkins athletic office confirmed to The Sentinel.

CTE has become heavily associated with football players who have suffered multiple concussions. The first full description of the disease in a football player was published in 2005. This led to a number of legal settlements with sports organizations that were alleged to have not protected players, including the NCAA.

The NCAA settlement resulted in a program, as mentioned in Placey’s brief, for the monitoring and treatment of former college athletes. The program is not limited to football players, according to its website, and also covers head injuries that did not involve a concussion.

CTE involves neurological damage that can result in dementia, emotional instability, memory lapses, and other cognitive impairments. The expected timespan between a player’s retirement from their sport, and the onset of CTE symptoms, can vary widely, according to research studies on the condition.

Last year, The Sentinel reported that the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board had launched an investigation regarding Placey’s behaviors which had been highlighted by a January 2019 opinion from the state Superior Court that found Placey’s actions in the Samento case “were intemperate, and raise the appearance of bias.”

The Superior Court also found that Placey had violated Samento’s due process rights when Placey became enraged during a hearing and abruptly ended it, ultimately levying financial penalties against Samento despite being unable, according to the Superior Court, to provide a coherent explanation of why the hearing was never rescheduled.

The Superior Court also found that Placey’s subsequent orders in the case were based on a “mischaracterization” of the proceedings and hinged on matters that were “completely irrelevant” to the legal issues at hand, the court wrote.

In interviews, Samento described being concerned that Placey was going to physically assault him, and the Judicial Conduct Board described that the judge “leaned over the witness stand where the responding party was seated causing him to abruptly slide his chair back, colliding with the wall behind him.”

The Judicial Conduct Board’s charges against Placey last month also detailed additional instances beyond the Samento case in which Placey had become suddenly angry to the point where it prevented cases from being fully considered and resulted in dubious directives.

Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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