Custody, Visitation and Disclosure of Parent’s Psychological Records

In this action for divorce and ancillary relief, the defendant-husband (hereinafter “husband”) moves for an Order permitting him to depose the treating therapist of the plaintiff-wife (hereinafter “wife”), Dr. E.C., and authorizing the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served upon Dr. C. instructing her to disclose all of her notes to counsel for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife. The wife opposes the motion claiming that it has no basis in law or in fact. She also cross-moves for various relief which is addressed in this Court’s decision on Motion Sequence 003.
It is the husband’s position that given the wife’s allegations, which he contends are false, that he abused the parties’ son and repeatedly raped her, he has “no choice as a loving, responsible father but to ask that the Court order [the wife’s] psychiatrist of 15 years, Dr. C., to turn over the notes and records of L’s extensive psychiatric treatment and that my attorneys be [*2]allowed to take Dr. C.’s deposition regarding her treatment of [the wife] prior to any trial in this case.” According to the husband, he does not seek to hurt the wife, but, rather, wants to help his son. He states that he could not in good faith agree to any final custody arrangement, nor should the Court make a custody determination, without more information regarding the wife’s psychological condition, which, he contends, has allowed her to level these vicious accusations at him. Moreover, Dr. C., the husband states, is the person with the most information about the wife’s medications and how her condition “can be kept in check and how it could potentially worsen over the next 16 crucial and formative years of [the child’s] life.”
According to the husband, when he first married the wife he was unaware that she had a condition that required extensive psychological treatment. In fact, he claims that the wife would see Dr. C. 18 times per month and even spoke with the therapist regularly during the parties’ honeymoon. However, it was not until the parties went through the in vitro fertilization process that the husband says that he learned that the wife had been prescribed different types of medication throughout the years and was currently taking 5 milligrams of Valium twice a day. In addition, it is the husband’s belief that the wife has paranoid tendencies evidenced by her telling her attorney who then relayed it to the Court that she was being followed by a van and that a man was taking photographs of her in the park.
In opposing the husband’s motion, the wife points out that the husband has failed to provide any authority which supports his request. While she acknowledges that the parties have put their respective mental conditions at issue by contesting custody, she argues that this does not mean that either party is entitled to pretrial discovery regarding the other’s mental health history. Rather, she states that pretrial review of the parties’ mental conditions and parenting ability is precisely the reason why a neutral forensic evaluator is appointed for custody disputes as one has been appointed in this action.
The wife also contends that it was the husband who repeatedly lost touch with reality, “erupting into screaming tirades that our housekeeper was trying to poison him; he often repeatedly screamed that someone was trying to kill him in the shower through poisonous gas being fed through the water lines; he fired our baby nurse in the middle of the night. . ., claiming she was trying to hurt our son’s penis; he became hysterical when our son flushed the toilet without shutting the lid because poisonous vapors escaped through the toilet; he wrote notes about time travel; he insisted that someone was defecating on our towels even though they were clean; [and] he told our son in front of me that he was capable of killing me just as the character in a movie they were watching had killed his wife. . . .” Additionally, she annexes to her papers affidavits from two individuals who witnessed some of the acts of which she accuses the husband and which describe other allegedly idiosyncratic behavior on the husband’s part. She further alleges that during the marriage the husband sexually, verbally and emotionally abused her, causing her love for him to turn to fear. Notably, she does not controvert the husband’s allegations in connection with Dr. C.
It is well established that pretrial disclosure of privileged medical records is limited, especially in a custody litigation given the sensitive nature of the issues involved and the potential for the abuse of such discovery. See, e.g., Ferguson v. Ferguson, 2 Misc 3d 277 (Supreme Court, Nassau County 2003); Garvin v. Garvin, 162 AD2d 497 (2nd Dept. 1990); Coderre v. Coderre, 1990 WL 312774. As the Coderre, supra , court noted, since the wholesale pretrial discovery of the medical records of one party does not provide any mechanism to ensure that only relevant and [*3]material confidential information is disclosed, these records may contain communications that are “embarrassing, humiliating, potentially damaging and totally irrelevant to the issue of present and future parental fitness.”
However, privileged information may be disclosed “where it is demonstrated that the invasion of protected communications between a party and a physician, psychologist or social worker is necessary and material to a determination of custody. . . .” State ex rel. Hickox v. Hickox, 64 AD2d 412 (1st Dept. 1978) citing, Perry v. Fiumano, 61 AD2d 512 (4th Dept. 1978).Accordingly, this department has adopted a policy which requires that a party’s medical records be reviewed by the Court and that only portions of the records deemed to be relevant and material, if any, be disclosed. Hickox, supra . This policy was recently reaffirmed in the case of Penny B. v. Gary S., 61 AD3d 589 (1st Dept. 2009), wherein the court held on the father’s petition for an award of custody, that the court had acted properly when it conducted an in camera review of the notes of the husband’s therapist and determined that it was unnecessary to release them or for the therapist to testify since the court had sufficient information about the father from other sources.
Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that under the circumstances here an in camera review of Dr. C.’s notes and records concerning the wife is appropriate. Accordingly, Dr. E.C. is directed to produce to the Court all of her notes and records regarding the treatment of the wife for in camera inspection. Such production shall be made no later than January 8, 2010. Upon review, the Court shall disclose any portion of the material which it deems to be material and necessary for the purpose of determining custody of the parties’ child. The husband’s application to depose Dr. C and his request that the Court authorize the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served on her instructing that she disclose all of her notes to counsel for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife is denied.

One issue that often comes in divorce actions, as well as in custody actions, involves disclosure of a party’s psychological or counseling records.  The party seeking the records typically is aware of some damaging information that may contained in them and would like to force their disclosure to the court or the attorney for the children.  The party whose records are being sought typically opposes such demands on the grounds that such records are private and extremely sensitive.  Psychological records may contain information with respect to a party’s psychological condition or mental illness, or other information, that may have impact on the parent’s fitness for custody or visitation.

In a recent case, L.W. v. E.S., 2009 NY Slip Op 52718(U) (Sup. Ct. New York Co.), the court had to address issues dealing with the husband’s motion seeking to depose the treating therapist of the wife , and authorizing the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served upon the therapist, instructing her to disclose all of her notes toattorney for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife.  The wife opposed the motion.  The court engaged in a discussion of the parties’ positions and applicable legal principles.  The court stated that it is well established that pretrial disclosure of privileged medical records is limited, especially in a custody litigation given the sensitive nature of the issues involved and the potential for the abuse of such discovery.

Since the wholesale pretrial discovery of the medical records of one party does not provide any mechanism to ensure that only relevant and material confidential information is disclosed, these records may contain communications that are embarrassing, humiliating, potentially damaging and totally irrelevant to the issue of present and future parental fitness.  However, privileged information may be disclosed where it is demonstrated that the invasion of protected communications between a party and a physician, psychologist or social worker is necessary and material to a determination of custody.  Accordingly, in view of these concerns, the court has adopted a policy which requires that a party’s medical records be reviewed by the court and that only portions of the records deemed to be relevant and material, if any, be disclosed.  Instead of providing unlimited access to the records, the court would usually conduct an in camera review of the notes of the therapist and determine if it is necessary to release them or for the therapist to testify.

The husband alleged that he was not aware of the wife’s psychological issues when he married her and that her psychological condition caused her to accuse the husband of various forms of misconduct.  The husband also alleged that the wife’s condition impacted her ability to parent.  After reviewing each party’s allegations, the court found that under the circumstances here an in camera review of the therapist’s notes and records concerning the wife was appropriate.  Upon review, the court shall disclose any portion of the material which it deems to be material and necessary for the purpose of determining custody of the parties’ child.

The courts approach requests for disclosure of psychological or mental health records carefully since there are significant reasons to limit disclosure of such records.  If the party’s divorce or custody lawyer can demonstrate that such records contain information that likely to be relevant to the parties’ custody or visitation dispute, such records will be disclosed.