123rd.com ostillThe Discovery Rules account for all manner of need for obtaining evidence. Many of these rules are seldom, if ever, utilized by family law attorneys because either they are not germane to a family law case; not permitted by the Divorce Code (i.e. prohibition against discovery in simple support cases), or; family court cases have their own procedure for obtaining the information. One example would be Discovery Rule 4010 which provides for the examination of a party where their mental or physical condition  has been called into question. As demonstrated by the case below, you will commonly see this Rule used in a personal injury case. This rule would not necessarily come into play in the Family Court since the Custody Code and associated Rules of Civil Procedure, for instance, outline how and when a custody or psychological evaluation will occur.

Still, though this rule may not crop up often, if at all, in a family law case, it is still a rule and understanding it may help an attorney whose client is undergoing some form of physical or mental evaluation to be familiar with the Court’s holding in Shearer v. Hafer, 2016 WL 910146.  At issue was whether the trial court erred in granting Hafer’s request for protective order which prevented Shearer from having counsel present during Hafer’s neuropsychological evaluation pursuant to Discovery Rule 4010.

The background to the case is that Hafer was sued by Shearer for injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Shearer underwent a neuropsychological evaluation and the defendant in the case, Hafer, sought to have an independent evaluation conducted setting up a case of dueling experts. Shearer, as the plaintiff and party seeking damages, did not generally oppose the request, but insisted on having their counsel present for the test.  This demand was objected to by the independent physician hired by Hafer on, among other reasons, professional ethics grounds. Hafer filed for a protective order to keep Shearer’s attorney out of the evaluation. Their justification for the exclusion was that Shearer’s attorney, through observation, could create areas of cross-examination of the expert’s eventual report, particularly when viewed against the doctor’s written statements. The concern, it would seem, is that in watching how the sausage is made that counsel attacking pieces of the process on cross-examination could unfairly invalidate a conclusion by focusing on one of numerous elements which in isolation may not lend themselves to that outcome. Having an adverse audience, it was argued, could lead to invalid or biased results.

So while the party being examined under the rule can have counsel present – for, among other reasons, to avoid any self-incrimination – the rule is silent as to the access of the opposing counsel.  The Superior Court’s decision established the prohibition against the presence of outside observers during a neuropsychological evaluation and found good cause for the protective order.  The Trial Court made a careful consideration of the issues and opinions and ethical issues of the governing bodies for neuropsychology professional associations and potential for an invalid or biased outcome.  The Trial Court also expressed a concern that the doctor’s written statements could be used for impeachment purposes if the examination were conducted in the presence of a third party.

Those concerns led to the conclusion that having the “requesting” party’s attorney in the room carries more risk to the process than reward and for that, counsel is excluded and left wait until the report is issued and wait to cross-examine the physician at trial.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.

Whenever there is a deep-seated dispute concerning which parent, if either, should have primary physical custody of a child, a question commonly asked is whether the Court should have the benefit of a formal custody evaluation.  These studies, most often undertaken by psychologists, attempt to evaluate the relative parenting skills of the parents and seek to measure those skills against the perceived needs of the subject child.  The rules of civil procedure authorize courts to order such studies either by agreement or the request of one party. Technically, because these studies involve expert opinions, each party is entitled to his or her own expert.  But Courts actively discourage this not only because the evaluations are expensive (typically $5000-7500) but because experts separately hired by each parent tend to be viewed as “hired guns” for their employers.  The vast majority of such studies are jointly undertaken by neutral evaluators who is tasked to identify what custody arrangement would be in the best interests of the child involved.

The typical evaluation follows a fairly routine protocol.  Most evaluating psychologists send each parent a packet of information intended to secure a history of the individuals, their families of origin (i.e., their parents), the relationship that gave birth to the child and what has transpired since that relationship dissolved.  They will commonly ask for collateral contacts who can verify the accuracy of the information submitted.  If either parent is already involved with a mental health professional, the evaluator will typically ask permission to discuss the matter with the treating professional (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or social worker).  Having secured this information the next step is ordinarily a face to face interview with each parent conduct without the other parent present.  At some point in the process many psychologists want to see the dynamics of both parents together in the same room.  Some like to observe this early in the evaluation; others make it a last step before completing their reports.

Except in instances where the child is too young to effectively communicate, most evaluators want to separately interview each child involved.  They may also want to see the child interact with each of his or her parents either in the evaluators office or in the home where that the parent and child occupy.  The children are often tested using tests directly intended to help the evaluator determine which parent the child is more closely bonded with.

Parents are also commonly tested using devises like the much joked about Rorschach ink blot test and the MMPI (566 yes/no questions that seem pretty bizarre when you read them).  These tests are intended to assess whether either parent has a diagnosable mental condition.

So what comes out of all this. In the vast majority of cases, not much beyond a lengthy written report.  First, most people don’t have a diagnosable mental disorder and in many situations we read that much of the supposed aberrant behavior is attributed to a kind of “divorce syndrome.” The stress of separation and custody litigation does often cloud judgment and create reactive parenting. Second, even people who have mild disorders can still be very effective parents.  Beyond the testing, many judicial officers don’t find the reports very helpful, especially as children grow to be old enough to articulate their own views.  But despite these limitations clients and many attorneys continue to believe that these reports can “win” the case and Courts are inclined to permit evaluations to go forward often because there is hope that a custody evaluation will provide a springboard to case settlement.