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Massage Today
November, 2003, Vol. 03, Issue 11

COMTA Hit With Lawsuit, AMTA Faces New Allegations

By Rebecca J. Razo

In November 2002, Massage Today reported that The Galen Institute in Wethersfield, Conn., had filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) for misconduct during the institute's pursuit of COMTA accreditation (www.massagetoday.com/archives/2002/11/05.html).

In a recent development, the institute announced its expansion of the lawsuit to include the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and an unnamed Connecticut massage school as co-defendants, claiming the school conspired with the AMTA and COMTA to form a monopoly in violation of antitrust laws.1

Galen Institute is owned and operated by Jim Lattanzio, who, earlier this year, formed the National Organization for the Advancement of Massage, Schools and Educators (NOAMSE), an organization comprised of massage school owners and educators who do not agree with the accreditation standards set forth by COMTA.

Now, one of NOAMSE's affiliates has come forward and filed a lawsuit against COMTA, naming the AMTA, COMTA and COMTA Executive Director Carole Ostendorf as co-defendants, and alleging the organizations have engaged in illegal business practices. The Council Overseeing Medical and Massage Therapy (COM &MTA) in Olathe, Kan., is a massage school accrediting agency formed earlier this year by Chris Folkers. In the nine-count brief obtained by Massage Today, COM&MTA's allegations include fraud, coercion in an attempt to convert, defamation, violation of antitrust and trade acts, false advertising, interference and conspiracy.2

COM&MTA filed its lawsuit after being contacted by COMTA and AMTA. According to the lawsuit, COM&MTA was informed it had "illegally infringed on the certification marks 'COMTA' and 'Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation.' " COMTA and AMTA then attempted to force COM&MTA to cease using the name and acronym.

COM&MTA challenged the accusation, demanding proof that COMTA held certification and trademark ownership. According to the brief, however, COMTA "attempted to fraudulently mislead the [COM&MTA] as to a U.S. trademark ownership of certification mark."2

"In June, COM&MTA was legally formed," Folkers said. "A search of the United States Trademark and Patent Office was done, and at that point, there was no application from the AMTA [for COMTA] on file."3

The AMTA and COMTA disagree. "The AMTA name is trademarked and we have also received and/or applied for other trademarks, service marks and certification marks associated with AMTA," stated a letter from the AMTA national board of directors to AMTA chapter presidents. "One of the names we protect is the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation."4

According to Lattanzio, the COM&MTA and NOAMSE have been unfairly attacked because of their joint desire to accredit schools that have been excluded by COMTA. "An accrediting agency should be able to evaluate any school [that is] legitimate and has an outcome-based education," Lattanzio said. "COMTA says it assures quality and excellent education, and quality of massage therapists, [but] a quality student cannot be guaranteed by COMTA."1

Folkers agrees. "The establishment of [COM&MTA] was due to a growing need for a more logical and common-sense approach to accreditation. The current assumption that a national standard exists is a fallacy," he said. "One of the primary objectives [of COM&MTA] is to give schools a choice. [Having] only one primary accrediting agency choice could lead to bias, corruption, and destruction of businesses and other overt acts," he added.3

COM&MTA's evaluation of massage schools for accreditation are based on local standards, which allow schools to be evaluated on their own merits, and is logical, as far as Lattanzio is concerned. "There are no industry standards. Everything from 'A to Z' exists as far as massage therapy is concerned; if there are no standards, how can an organization declare a standard? COMTA's standards seek to exclude rather than include," he remarked.1

In a letter mailed to massage school owners and directors, COM&MTA clearly stated its position related to accreditation: "We believe that all legitimate schools, through a reasonable process, should have an opportunity to participate and achieve validation and accreditation. As state, local laws and regulations vary so much and usually establish what schools teach, school owners, directors and educators should not be forced to adopt, in the name of being 'legitimate' any set of artificial standards."5

Lattanzio and Folkers also believe that COMTA is not living up to certain obligations under its U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) recognition agreement. "They do not effectively monitor their member schools, which is one of the requirements under their USDOE recognition," said Folkers. "The COMTA application [to the USDOE] misrepresents their intention," added Lattanzio.1,3

One of the USDOE standards for recognition requires that "the [accrediting] agency must demonstrate that its standards, policies, procedures, and decisions to grant or deny accreditation are widely accepted in the United States by (a) Educators and educational institutions; and (b) Licensing bodies, practitioners, and employers in the professional or vocational fields for which the education institutions or programs within the agency's jurisdiction prepare their students."6

But Lattanzio disputes that AMTA and COMTA standards are widely accepted. "It makes me question how they represented themselves to the U.S. government," he said.1

Lattanzio also noted that two other organizations use the name "COMTA" - the Canadian Orthopractic Manual Therapy Association and a computer furniture manufacturer - neither of which has, to his knowledge, been singled out by the AMTA or COMTA. "Why hasn't Canada been targeted?" he asked.1

Massage Today contacted the AMTA and COMTA Executive Director Carole Ostendorf. "I've been advised by counsel not to respond," Ostendorf said.7

However, AMTA President Brenda L. Griffith issued the following statement:

"At the heart of this issue are two things: one [being] that AMTA has no problem with someone setting up an organization that wants to accredit massage schools. We just want them to not use a name so similar to COMTA that it confuses the public. We've heard from many COMTA-accredited schools that are concerned about the similar acronyms; we also have heard from some potential students that say they are confused by the similar acronym. The second point is that AMTA has worked for almost 20 years to establish the good name of COMTA. We feel that the group COMMTA [now COM&MTA] is using that good will and good name by using an acronym that is so similar to COMTA. Regarding the nature of the relationship between AMTA and COMTA and the USDOE, the Director of Accreditation and State Liaison for the USDOE recently responded to someone who asked this question. He said USDOE was always well-aware of the relationship, and feels COMTA meets their requirements. He also said that AMTA and COMTA were always upfront in explaining their relationship. AMTA isn't out to get anyone. We just feel that everyone should respect each others' protected names and not confuse the public. We still hope this issue can be resolved quickly and without unnecessary litigation."8

Folkers sums up his feelings this way: "Presently, many schools out there will never meet and live up to the criteria for accreditation, either due to course hours or financial restraints. This puts these schools at a disadvantage when prospective students read from other agency Web sites that accredited schools are better than nonaccredited schools. The real questions are: Does the school accomplish its objective in training a competent therapist? Is this newly trained individual able to meet the standard for practicing in his or her local jurisdiction? Accreditation is a validation process. The COM&MTA offers schools a more realistic approach to this validation process. It's available to all schools. [COM&MTA] has stated it before: If we cannot accredit your school or program, your funds will be refunded. Tell me, who else offers that?"

If nothing else, this situation proves one thing: The massage profession remains divided on crucial issues relating to education, licensure and the overall direction in which the profession is headed. Look for updates on this situation in future issues of Massage Today.

References

  1. Interview with Jim Lattanzio, The Galen Institute and NOAMSE. Oct. 6, 2003.
  2. COM&MTA Civil Complaint, U.S. District Court, District of Kansas. Aug. 7, 2003.
  3. Interview with Chris Folkers, COM&MTA. Oct. 7, 2003.
  4. "AMTA Must Protect its Trademark." AMTA letter sent from national board of directors to AMTA chapter presidents. Sept. 15, 2003.
  5. COM&MTA letter to massage school owners and program directors. June 2003.
  6. United States Department of Education, Secretary's Recognition of Accrediting Agencies, Section - 602.13 Acceptance of the agency by others. www.ed.gov.
  7. Phone conversation with Carole Ostendorf, COMTA. Oct. 8, 2003.
  8. Statement from AMTA President Brenda L. Griffith to Massage Today. Oct. 8, 2003.

 

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