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Mental Health and Substance Abuse Records not Always Discoverable in NY

March 3, 2017

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In New York Personal Injury litigation, a plaintiff is said to affirmatively place their health at issue when bringing suit. The defense is entitled to obtain all medical records “material and necessary” to the medical conditions plaintiff claims to have suffered as a result of an accident. As a matter of course, Complaints and Bill of Particulars generally include certain “catch-all” allegations for damages, such as the loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, and future pain and suffering. Under New York’s liberal discovery rules, defendants often use these allegations to support demands for a broad range of medical records.
The Appellate Division, First Department recently dealt with the appropriate scope of such discovery with respect to medical records related to substance abuse and mental health treatment in <em><a href="">James v. 1620 Westchester Avenue, LLC</a>.</em>
In James, the plaintiff brought an action to recover for personal injuries suffered in a trip and fall. The complaint included allegations of future pain and suffering, general anxiety, mental anguish, and the loss of enjoyment of life – standard fare in a personal injury action. Based on these allegations, the defendant moved to compel production of authorizations to obtain medical records related to treatment the plaintiff received for mental health and substance abuse, and the plaintiff cross-moved for a protective order to prevent discovery of those records. The trial court granted plaintiff’s motion, ruling that records related to plaintiff’s mental health and substance abuse treatment were not at issue in this case, and therefore not discoverable.
On appeal, the First Department affirmed, holding that plaintiff’s broad allegations of general anxiety and mental anguish were not sufficient to place her mental health at issue. Thus, records related to plaintiff’s mental health and substance abuse treatment were not discoverable by the defendant, as the defendant failed to establish that those records were “material and necessary” to the defense of the lawsuit.
In the dissent, Judge Saxe noted that mental health records are certainly useful in evaluating claims of future pain and suffering and the loss of enjoyment of life and such records are often an invaluable source of additional information about the plaintiff. They sometimes include additional information regarding the happening of an accident, subsequent and intervening injuries, and other tertiary information about the post-accident activities of a plaintiff. While mental health and substance abuse records themselves may ultimately prove inadmissible at trial due to their prejudicial nature, they often lead to discovery of valuable information that would otherwise remain concealed.
The First Department’s decision in James reflects that defendants cannot exclusively rely on boilerplate allegations such as mental anguish, general anxiety, and the loss of enjoyment of life to justify a demand for mental health or substance abuse records. Litigants will need to confirm a specific nexus between the accident and the plaintiff’s mental health to support a demand for these records.
And WCM will continue to follow this case to see whether the Court of Appeals shows interest in this decision with two dissents.  Thanks to John Collins for his contribution to this post and please write to <a href="mailto:">Mike Bono</a> for more information.

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