High court to weigh protection of privacy for therapy sessions Federal judiciary offers no guarantee of confidentiality

October 17, 1995|By LYLE DENNISTON | LYLE DENNISTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to delve into the private dealings of therapists with their patients to determine whether such counseling will be protected by a shroud of confidentiality in the federal courts.

If the court provides some privacy for what is said in therapy sessions, it is expected to decide how far the protection extends: to counseling by any medical professional, or only for sessions with psychiatrists or psychologists.

Maryland and the 49 other states assure some privacy in state court for what a patient reveals to a therapist by banning or restricting the forced disclosure of such information.

But there is no guarantee of the same thing in federal courts; Congress has left it to the courts to decide for themselves. The result has been a split among lower courts that the Supreme Court will now resolve in an Illinois case.

That case involves a police officer in a suburb of Chicago who had gone to therapy sessions for six months to help her cope with the trauma of having shot a man to death while investigating a crime scene.

The sessions were with a clinical social worker employed by the village of Hoffman Estates. The officer, Mary Lu Redmond, was on the village police force.

Relatives of the dead man sued the officer in civil court for damages, and demanded to know what she had said during counseling about the shooting incident. The officer refused to reveal the information, but the trial judge rejected her claim that the therapy was confidential and need not be disclosed.

The judge barred her from taking the stand to give her account of the shooting incident and told the jurors that they could conclude that her silence about the therapy could be taken as a sign that it would be unfavorable to her side of the case.

The jury ruled against the officer, awarding $545,000 in damages against Officer Redmond and the village of Hoffman Estates. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that result. The appeals court concluded that federal evidence rules establish a right to withhold evidence of what is said during psychotherapy, so long as the information was crucial to the treatment.

The federal appeals court noted that society had become more violent in recent years, and that many citizens -- and police officers -- witness incidents that leave them traumatized.

Recognizing a right of confidentiality in therapy, the appeals court said, can help encourage "those who witness, participate in, and are intimately affected by acts of violence in today's stressful, crime-ridden, homicidal environment, to seek the necessary professional counseling."

Those being counseled will communicate more freely during private sessions if they know that what they say will be shielded from disclosure later in court, the appeals court said.

The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision by next summer.

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