U.S. Supreme Court (June 13, 1996)
This case reached the U. S. Supreme Court only because an Illinois social worker, Karen Beyer, at risk of being jailed for contempt of court, refused to turn over her client’s therapy records. The decision expanded therapist-patient privilege in federal court cases on the basis that persons have a private interest in speaking freely in therapy, and that the public has an interest in troubled persons seeking therapy safely. “… the mere possibility of disclosure may impede development of the confidential relationship necessary for successful treatment…” [Emphasis added]
See complete text of the decision at:
Listen to oral arguments at:
See APA amicus brief at:
Read Karen Beyer’s account of her experience at:
Excerpts from the Court’s Opinion:
“Like the spousal and attorney-client privileges, the psychotherapist-patient privilege is “rooted in the imperative need for confidence and trust.”. . . Treatment by a physician for physical ailments can often proceed successfully on the basis of a physical examination, objective information supplied by the patient, and the results of diagnostic tests. Effective psychotherapy, by contrast, depends upon an atmosphere of confidence and trust in which the patient is willing to make a frank and complete disclosure of facts, emotions, memories, and fears. Because of the sensitive nature of the problems for which individuals consult psychotherapists, disclosure of confidential communications made during counseling sessions may cause embarrassment or disgrace.
”For this reason, the mere possibility of disclosure may impede development of the confidential relationship necessary for successful treatment…As the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee observed in 1972 when it recommended that Congress recognize a psychotherapist privilege as part of the Proposed Federal Rules of Evidence, a psychiatrist’s ability to help her patients “is completely dependent upon [the patients’] willingness and ability to talk freely. This makes it difficult if not impossible for [a psychiatrist] to function without being able to assure . . . patients of confidentiality and, indeed, privileged communication. Where there may be exceptions to this general rule . . ., there is wide agreement that confidentiality is a sine qua non for successful psychiatric treatment.” Advisory Committee’s Notes to Proposed Rules, 56 F. R. D. 183, 242 (1972) (quoting Group for Advancement of Psychiatry, Report No. 45, Confidentiality and Privileged Communication in the Practice of Psychiatry 92 (June 1960)).
“Because we agree . . . that a psychotherapist-patient privilege will serve a “public good transcending the normally predominant principle of utilizing all rational means for ascertaining truth” . . . we hold that confidential communications between a licensed psychotherapist and her patients in the course of diagnosis or treatment are protected from compelled disclosure under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.”
Excerpt from Justice Scalia’s Dissent:
”When is it, one must wonder, that the psychotherapist came to play such an indispensable role in the maintenance of the citizenry’s mental health? For most of history, men and women have worked out their difficulties by talking to, inter alios, parents, siblings, best friends and bartenders –none of whom was awarded a privilege against testifying in court. Ask the average citizen: ‘Would your mental health be more significantly impaired by preventing you from seeing a psychotherapist, or by preventing you from getting advice from your mom?’ I have little doubt what the answer would be. Yet there is no mother-child privilege.”