Courtroom Cue: New Jersey District Court Orders Production of Psychiatric Records In Connection with Hostile Work Environment and Emotional Distress

By: Cristina N. Hyde, JD

Last month, the New Jersey District Court ordered the release of psychiatric records related to a  plaintiff’s claims that her colleagues created a hostile work environment and caused her to suffer severe emotional distress.  This action is an important reminder that an employer can compel the release of an employee’s relevant medical records when the employee has placed their physical or emotional condition squarely at issue in the case by seeking emotional distress damages.

In 2015, New Jersey Judge Deborah Gross-Quatrone was accused of misconduct which displayed a lack of veracity and disrespect that compromised the integrity of the courts. Ethics charges included allegations that she required her law clerk to work for three weeks without pay and asked her secretary to complete her son’s homework assignments and perform other personal tasks.  When asked to meet with the assignment judge, she allegedly attempted to secretly tape the meetings.  Judge Gross-Quatrone was ultimately suspended for two months without pay for secretly recording those meeting and denying she had done it.

In 2017, Judge Gross-Quatrone filed suit naming her bosses and colleagues as defendants and alleging that she was the victim of their hostile and inappropriate behavior.  In Gross-Quatrone v. Mizdol et al., Judge Gross-Quatrone alleged that her time with the Bergen Vicinage was wrought with abuse and harassment.  As a result, she claimed that she suffered severe emotional distress in the form of ongoing physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety, migraines, nosebleeds and other physical injuries. When asked to produce the medical file from the hospital she identified as having treated her for the conditions at issue, she refused.

The parties thereafter appeared before the Honorable Leda Dunn Wettre, USMJ on the defendant’s motion to compel all medial and mental health records from the treating hospital.  In support of their request, the defense pointed out that that federal common law does not recognize a physician-patient privilege and, even if it did, the privilege was waived by the plaintiff placing her mental and physical condition at issue in the case.

Despite claims that the defense was a on a “fishing expedition,” and that the  requested records were protected by HIPAA, the Court ultimately ordered the production of specific psychiatric records and other information that would allow the defense to narrow their request for records from the treating hospital.

This decision, like many before it, seems to balance the importance of protecting an employee’s right to privacy by not allowing unlimited access to full medical files but permitting the discovery of relevant records related to the medical and emotional conditions upon which a party has based their claim to emotional distress damages.

If you would like more information on hostile work environment claims and emotional distress damages or if you are a medical practice that has been faced with a subpoena for records and you need help, Contact Us.

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