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Avoiding Liability Bulletin – October 2005

… Typically, the holder of the privilege is the patient and not the therapist or counselor. Thus, the privilege can be claimed (asserted) by the patient or can be waived (given up) by the patient. Sometimes the patient waives the privilege as a matter of law and without knowing it. This typically happens when the patient, through his or her attorney, brings a lawsuit against another (the defendant) alleging physical and emotional harm suffered as the result of the negligent or intentional conduct of the defendant.

Sometimes the primary injury suffered may be physical in nature, but somewhere in the pleadings it is alleged that the plaintiff (your patient) also suffered emotional harm. This allegation may be enough to allow the defendant to subpoena and obtain the mental health records of the patient, who may then be concerned and surprised by the likelihood that very personal information may have to be revealed. In such a circumstance, the therapist must make sure that the patient’s waiver of the privilege or claim (assertion) of privilege is documented in the records. The records should reflect not only the patient’s position, but the position of the attorney for the patient as well.

The patient and his or her attorney must be in agreement with each other before the therapist can safely act – that is, respond to a subpoena for records. The attorney for the patient can often convince the patient that the disclosure of the mental health records is necessary in order for the lawsuit to be successful. Under some circumstances, the attorney for the patient may be able to apply for and obtain a protective order, allowing some portion of the records to be excluded from disclosure.


Richard Leslie

"At the Intersection of Law and Psychotherapy" Richard S. Leslie is an attorney who has practiced at the intersection of law and psychotherapy for the past twenty-five years. Most recently, he was a consultant to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), where he worked with their various state divisions to develop and implement their legislative agendas. He also provided telephone consultation services to AAMFT members regarding legal and ethical issues confronting practitioners of diverse licensure nationwide. Additionally, he wrote articles regarding legal and ethical issues for their Family Therapy Magazine and presented at workshops on a variety of legal issues. Prior to his work with AAMFT, Richard was Legal Counsel to the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) for approximately twenty-two years. He was director of Government Relations for CAMFT, and as such was the architect of CAMFT’s widely regarded and successful legislative agenda. He represented CAMFT before the regulatory board (the Board of Behavioral Sciences) and was a tireless advocate for due process and fairness for licensees and applicants. He was a regular presenter at workshops and was consistently evaluated as CAMFT’s most highly rated presenter. He also sat with the CAMFT Ethics Committee and acted as their advisor on matters pertaining to the enforcement of ethical standards. Richard is an acknowledged expert on matters pertaining to the interrelationship between law and the practice of marriage and family therapy and psychotherapy. For many years, he taught Law and Ethics courses for a number of colleges and universities in their marriage and family therapy degree programs. While at CAMFT, he provided telephone consultation services with thousands of therapists in California and elsewhere for over twenty years. He is highly regarded for his judgment, his expertise, his direct style, and his clarity. Richard has been the driving force for many of the changes and additions to the laws of the State of California that affect MFTs. In 1980, he was primarily responsible for achieving passage of the "Freedom of Choice Law" that required insurance companies to pay for psychotherapy services performed by MFTs. Passage of that law allowed MFTs to earn a living, allowed them to better compete in the marketplace, and strengthened the profession in California by leading to a great increase in the number of licensees and CAMFT membership. Currently, about half of the licensed marriage and family therapists in the country are licensed in California. While at CAMFT, Richard was primarily responsible for, among other things, the successful effort to criminalize sex between a patient and a therapist. He was successful in extending the laws of psychotherapist-patient privilege to MFTs, thereby giving patients the same level of privacy protection as when seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. He fought tirelessly and successfully for the right of MFTs to refer to themselves as "psychotherapists," to perform psychological testing services, to be appropriately reimbursed by California’s Victims of Crime Program, and to be employed in county mental health agencies throughout California. Richard was admitted to the Bar in New York (1969) and in California (1973). While practicing in New York, he served as a public defender, and later, as an Assistant District Attorney. Shortly after moving to California, he worked for the San Diego County Human Relations Commission as their Law and Justice Officer. While there, he worked successfully to achieve greater racial diversity in the criminal jury selection system and to expose and stop police abuse. For such work with that agency, he was the recipient of the Civil Libertarian of the Year Award by the San Diego Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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