Nature of Case
Whether it is appropriate for federal courts to recognize a “psychotherapist privilege” under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Facts of Case
On June 27, 1991, Officer Mary Lu Redmond responded to a call at an apartment building concerning a “fight in progress.” She was the first officer to arrive at the scene. Two women (sisters of the deceased) ran towards Redmond’s car stating there had been a stabbing. Two men then ran out of the building, one wielding a pipe. They ignored her orders to get to the ground and she allegedly drew her gun. Two additional men came running out, with Ricky Allen (the deceased) chasing another, allegedly brandishing a butcher knife. Allen disregarded Redmond’s statement to drop the knife, and she shot Allen, before he could stab the other man. Allen died at the scene. Petitioners of his estate filed suit in federal court alleging Redmond had violated Allen’s constitutional right against the use of excessive force. Allen’s family offered a different version of the events, stating Redmond drew her gun before exiting her car and that Allen was unarmed when he emerged from the building. During pretrial discovery the petitioner learned that Redmond had sought counseling with a licensed social worker and sought access to the notes of their sessions. The district court ordered disclosure of the social worker’s notes for the therapy sessions; however, neither the therapist nor Redmond complied with the court order. Additionally during deposition and on the witness stand, both refused to answer certain questions and reported an inability to recall details of their conversations. At the end of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that the refusal to release the notes had no “legal justification” and informed the jury they could presume the information contained within the notes was most likely unfavorable to the defendant. The jury awarded the petitioner $45,000 on the federal claim and $500,000 on the state-law claim. The defendant appealed.
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the district court decision, stating that there was a psychotherapist-patient privilege; however, this privilege could be negated if the evidentiary need for disclosure outweighed the patient’s interests. In this case, because of numerous eyewitnesses, the appellate court decided that Redmond’s privacy interests outweighed the evidentiary needs. The United States Supreme Court granted cert due to the importance of the question and the conflict among appellate courts regarding psychotherapist privilege.
Did the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit err in determining that federal courts should recognize a psychotherapist privilege under 501, but do so on a case-by-case basis contingent upon whether the interests of justice outweigh the privacy interests of the patient?
In a 7 to 2 decision, with an opinion delivered by Justice Stevens, the Court affirmed the appellate court decision and concluded Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence recognized privilege protecting confidential communications between psychotherapist and patient, and this privilege extended beyond psychiatrists and psychologists to social workers. The court held that statements that Redmond made to her therapist and the notes taken by her therapist were protected from compelled disclosure. However, the Court rejected the balancing component of the privilege implemented by the appellate court, stating that “it would eviscerate the effectiveness of the privilege by making it impossible for participants to predict whether their confidential conversations would be protected. The court also stated that it was “neither necessary nor feasible to delineate its full contours in a way that would govern all future questions.” The Court mentioned only that “the patient may of course waive the protection,” and that there was no doubt that there would be situations in which the privilege could be broken, such as “serious threat of harm to the patient or to others” which could only be averted by “means of a disclosure by a therapist.”
The court reasoned that all 50 states and the District of Columbia had adopted some form of the psychotherapist-patient privilege. Therefore, “any State’s promise of confidentiality would have little value if the patient were aware that the privilege would not be honored in a federal court,” and denial of the privilege in federal court would frustrate the purpose of state legislation on the matter. Furthermore, the Court noted that “reason and experience” has persuaded the Court that confidential communications between the parties “promotes sufficiently important interests to outweigh the need for probative evidence.” The Court indicated the need for trust in their therapeutic relationship is paramount and “the mere possibility of disclosure may impede development of the confidential relationship necessary for successful treatment.” The Court also indicated that this protection applies broadly beyond psychologists and psychiatrists in many states and federal privilege should extend to social workers, such as the one involved in this case.
Concerning their decision on removal of the balancing privilege, the Court reasoned that a patient “must be able to predict with some degree of certainty whether particular discussions will be protected. An uncertain privilege, or one which purports to be certain but results in widely varying applications by the courts, is little better than no privilege at all.”
Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Rehnquist dissented on the grounds that psychotherapist-client privilege could result in occasional injustice. They reasoned that if an individual “wishes the benefits of telling the truth she must also accept the adverse consequences.” Justice Scalia questioned when it was that “the psychotherapist came to play such an indispensable role in the maintenance of the citizenry’s mental health?” It was argued that an individual’s mental health would be more impaired by preventing an individual from receiving advice from his mother, and yet no mother-child privilege existed. Additionally, it was argued that the extension of privilege should not be granted beyond psychologist and psychiatrists to social workers by the Court. It was alleged that psychologists and psychiatrists “do nothing but psychotherapy,” but social workers have multiple roles, and not all of them need to be confidential. Additionally, it was argued that the training of social workers was not of the same caliber as doctors, and they were not “experts” in the area of psychotherapy. It was also argued that the question of whether social workers should be granted the extension of a psychotherapist privilege was a matter to be handled by Congress, not the Court.