DENVER (CN) - The head of an adolescent and family psychiatric center in Colorado bought his diploma from an "unaccredited diploma mill" and is not a real doctor, a family claims in court.
Jeff Harris, his wife Cecille and their 19-year-old daughter Malaya sued Alexander Panio Jr., his wife Mary Panio, the Adolescent and Family Institute of Colorado (AFIC) and five AFIC employees, some of them licensed, some not, in Denver County Court.
Panio and his wife own and operate the Adolescent and Family Institute in Wheat Ridge, Colo., a suburb of Denver.
AFIC promises that it "alleviates immediate adolescent and family distress by addressing the whole family unit in a comprehensive treatment program," according to the lawsuit.
But the Harrises say that AFIC's owner is not who he says he is.
"Panio refers to himself as 'doctor' or 'Dr. Panio.' Panio makes patients and staff refer to him as 'doctor' or 'Dr. Panio,' even though he is not a doctor, did not go to medical school, did not go to psychology school, is not licensed and has a Ph.D. from an unaccredited diploma mill," the complaint states, "The diploma mill was California Western University, which is now defunct. Panio purchased this fraudulent Ph.D. to further bolster his scheme to defraud and deceive his patients and their insurance providers.
"At the time Panio purchased his Ph.D. certificate, California Western University was not accredited by any accrediting organization and provided degrees in exchange for money and 'life experience.'
"Panio did not undergo the kinds of rigorous education, class attendance, participation, internships, training, testing, dissertation work or licensure required of real Ph.D. recipients or clinical psychologists under C.R.S. 12-43-301 et seq.
"Panio has been defrauding the world at large in regard to his academic background and credentials for decades. As early as 1970, before he purchased his Ph.D. certificate, Panio referred to himself as 'Dr. Panio' and expected others to address him that way. Panio also occasionally fraudulently used an 'MD' suffix to give others the appearance that he had a medical degree.
"Panio tells actual and prospective AFIC patients that he is a 'psychologist' and a 'clinical psychologist' although he is neither, in violation of C.R.S. 12-43-305 and other mental health statutes.
"Panio's fraudulent misrepresentation of himself extends not only to academic achievements, but also to other personal and professional accomplishments as well.
"Panio, AFIC and the AFIC therapists use Panio's fraudulent professional accomplishments as a marketing tool to lure patients to AFIC.
"Panio's fraudulent credentials and accomplishments are also used as a tool to retain patients who question the program or the tactics used.
"Panio's credentials have previously been called into question through multiple regulatory complaints and lawsuits."
The Harrises claim that the Panios and AFIC were subject to a regulatory investigation that in the late 1990s. They claim that in 1998 a Jefferson County Social Services caseworker filed a complaint with the State of Colorado concerning Panio's "outrageous conduct" toward a young boy who was placed in AFIC.
In an excerpt from the caseworker's complaint, the worker wrote: "During the interview the word 'fuck' and 'fucking' was used liberally. It was also used by all but one of the staff in their conversations with this young man and his father. I felt this young man was trying to answer the questions as best as he knew how and was making an honest effort to be accepted by AFIC. Thinking back, I should have ended the interview myself and taken him back to Mt. View. Incarceration is more humane.
"Dr. Panio said such things to him as 'have you ever taken a shit and forgotten to wipe your ass?', 'have you ever put your dick in a garbage disposal?', 'I think you would make a nice girlfriend for someone in prison,' 'maybe it's because you're stupid,' 'every time you flap your lips, you tell fucking lies.' Is this indicative of the kind of treatment of the State of Colorado condones and licenses? I fell if some media person got wind of this it would be very embarrassing to the State Department."
The Harrises claim said Malaya was subjected to similar treatment, belittled in front of other patients, subjected to genitalia examinations and diagnosed with a personality disorder, though Panio had no qualifications to diagnose someone.
They seek restitution and treble damages for violation of the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act ("obtaining money or property from plaintiffs by the use of fear and threats"), conspiracy, consumer law violations, negligence, battery, breach of fiduciary duty, unauthorized practice of medicine and psychotherapy and fraud.
They are represented by Brett Lampiasi, of Hatfield, Mass.