Iowa Supreme Court Limits Access To Mental Health Records In Civil Lawsuits

By harley erbe

Office

On April 3, 2015 the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision in Cameron Fagen v. Grandview University.  The case concerned the extent to which defense attorneys can go in civil lawsuits in obtaining a plaintiff's mental health records.  Fagen was the first time that the Iowa Supreme Court addressed this question.  The case has implications for our work as Des Moines employment lawyers, Des Moines employment discrimination lawyers, Des Moines disability discrimination lawyers, Des Moines workplace harassment lawyers, Des Moines FMLA lawyers, Des Moines wrongful termination lawyers, Des Moines car accidents lawyers, Des Moines motorcycle accident lawyers, Des Moines dog bite lawyers, Des Moines product liability lawyers, Des Moines personal injury and wrongful death lawyers, and Des Moines nursing home injury lawyers.

Cameron Fagen brought a Des Moines personal injury law claim against Grandview University and other defendants.  Among other types of damages, he claimed "garden variety" emotional distress damages, meaning that he wasn't claiming he suffered a permanent mental disability because of the incident at Grandview University or anything like that.  But because he claimed emotional distress damages, the defense attorneys sought, and the trial court ordered Fagen to produce, his mental health records from his childhood.  Fagen appealed the trial court's decision.

It's interesting to note that Fagen was not a majority decision by the Iowa Supreme Court.  It was a "plurality" decision.  There are seven members of the Iowa Supreme Court.  Only three voted in favor of the decision I discuss here.  One justice supported the result of the case but didn't concur with the court's written opinion.  Three justices dissented.  Since only three judges out of seven supported the court's written opinion, it's only considered a plurality opinion, which is not as meaningful as a majority opinion in which at least four of the seven judges concur. 

Getting back to the plurality decision, the court ruled that the trial court shouldn't have automatically allowed access to Fagen's past mental health records simply because he claimed "garden variety" emotion distress.  Instead, a balancing test is necessary.  When a party refuses to provide access to mental health records, the court must make sure that the party seeking the records is not permitted to go on an unlimited fishing expedition into a party’s mental health records.  Therefore, the person requesting the records must make a showing that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the specific records are likely to contain information relevant to an element or factor of the claim or defense of the person or of any party trying to avoid producing the records.  The person seeking the mental health records need only advance some good-faith factual basis demonstrating how the records are reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence germane to an element or factor of the claim or defense.  If the party seeking the mental health records can make that showing, the patient–physician privilege is lost as to those records and the party requesting the records shall be entitled to them.

This decision is a welcome change in Iowa.  For too long, trial court judges have seemed to view the filing of a lawsuit as carte blanche permission for defense attorneys to get access to every single mental health or medical record from a person's past.  We hope that the Fagen ruling will be the beginning of an effort to curtail such wide-ranging explorations of a litigant's past, which often seem geared more towards humiliating the litigant rather than finding any information that might actually be pertinent to and useful in the lawsuit.

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