There have been many civil lawsuits against churches in recent years, seeking damages as a result of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. One issue that may come up is whether in such a case mental health records of the alleged abuser can be obtained. This issue was addressed in a recent reported opinion in Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called St. Luke’s Institute v. Andre Jones.
The opinion indicates that Jones filed suit in Massachusetts against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, alleging that Jones was abused as a minor by a brother in the congregation. The abuse was alleged to have occurred from 1978-1992. During the discovery phase of the Massachusetts suit, it was learned that the brother had received mental health treatment in the early 1990s at St. Luke’s, which for many years had treated Catholic clergy.
The church defendants indicated they had destroyed two reports from St. Luke’s about that treatment, so Jones sought to subpoena them from St. Luke’s in Maryland. St. Luke’s objected, raising privacy issues under the Maryland Confidentiality of Medical Records Act, although the brother had died in 2011. The trial Court ordered that the entire mental health record be produced under seal to the court in Massachusetts, and St. Luke’s appealed.
The appellate Court noted that under the Maryland Act, medical records generally are confidential and cannot be disclosed by a provider, absent a Court order. Under Maryland law, where such confidential records are sought, the party seeking the records must show some connection between the records sought and the case at issue, and the likelihood that the records would be relevant to an issue at trial. The Court of Special Appeals held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in finding that these records may be relevant to the Massachusetts case.
However, the appellate Court held that the trial judge should not have just ordered all the records produced, but should have conducted a private ‘in camera’ review of the records to determine if there was material that could not conceivably be used in a claim of defense, of lead to the discovery of relevant evidence in that lawsuit. Such a review is designed to assure that even in this situation privacy interests of confidential material may still be potentially protected.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.