If you are a lay reader cruising the net for information about how to handle your divorce, return to your search engine now in pursuit of more fertile material. Interlocutory appeals of discovery orders can numb the minds of invertebrates. But real lawyers might be interested.

In 2008 the representative of an estate (ie., dead person) brought an action for the wrongful death of his son. The action was brought against three family members alleged to be responsible for causing the child’s death. The gravamen of the case was that the decedent at fourteen years of age had access to a handgun; the defendants owned it knew that he played with it as did their 16-year-old son. The 14-year old’s parents went away, the 14 and 16-year-old got possession of the gun and the following morning the 14-year-old was found dead of a gunshot to the head. It appears uncontested that the 14-year-old took his own life.

The defense of the gun owners was that their 16-year-old asked the 14-year-old if he had the gun before they went to bed the night before the shooting and the 14-year-old said he did not have it.

In the wrongful death and survival action, the plaintiffs issued interrogatories (written questions) asking whether the defendants had sought any mental health care following the shooting. The question was objected to by the defendants (including the 16-year-old) on the basis that this question would not lead to admissible evidence. Defendants were also asked to produce documents related to a criminal trial which appears to have been brought against the 16-year old’s father. This, also was objected to. The trial court granted a motion to compel the discovery requiring the 16-year old’s mother to reveal the identity of her mental health counselor. It sustained the objection to the 16-year old’s father having to produce any notes he provided to his attorney in a criminal trial. The 16-year old’s mother did provide the name of her therapist but objected to any further inquiry on the basis that her meetings with the licensed psychologist were privileged. Concerning the defendant father’s trial notes, a letter was produced by his criminal trial counsel that the notes were taken by father and provided solely to counsel as part of the criminal defense. The trial court ordered production of the notes and the psychological records or a privilege log explicitly setting forth the basis for the objections. Two logs were produced for the psychological records; one applicable to treatment by a psychologist and a second related to sessions with a social worker employed in the psychologist’s practice. Another log was produced asserting that the notes for trial and a related deposition were made by the defendant’s father solely to assist his attorney. A second motion to compel was filed and the trial court ordered production of the material to the court in camera for review. For any laypersons who have endeavored to read this far, in camera means that the Court would examine the documents and determine whether the psychologist-patient and attorney-client were validly claimed. The defendant’s appealed that March, 2015 order.

Was this order appealable? Clearly it did not dispose of the case. But the defendants relied on Pa.R.A.P. 313. The appellee response was that even if the matter was appealable as a collateral order, this was only an order for in camera review and, as such, it could be that the appeal might be moot if the trial court affirmed the claims of privilege.

The Superior Court panel opinion pointed to Yocabet v. UPMC Presbyterian, holding that even a purported claim of privilege subjects an order to produce to appellate review under Pa.R.A.P.313. 119 A.3d 1012 (2015). This decision relied upon Ben v. Schwartz, 729 A.2d 547 (Pa. 1999) which held that denial of a claim of privilege is appealable. The appeals court further noted that privileged materials are not subject to provisional release to a judge for review until it is determined that they are not subject to privilege. Com. v. Kyle, 533 A.2d 120,129 (Pa. S 1987); Com. v. Simmons, 719 A.2d. 336 (Pa. S. 1998). Accordingly, the orders to produce were appealable and the fact that they were to be produced to the court alone (in camera) was immaterial.

On the substantive questions, the court noted that its scope of review was plenary. Having so held, the Superior Court found no language in the trial court opinion addressing either the mental health or attorney client privilege. The opinion begins by noting that statutory privileges such as these are not to be disregarded.

In seeking to know what the defendant told her mental health professional, the plaintiff’s clearly crossed the privilege line inappropriately. The Court appears to open the door to discovery of what the therapist diagnosed, observed or opined, but the patient’s statements are out of bounds. (Opinion p. 22). On the subject of whether such declarations to a social worker fall within the ambit of the privilege the Court sidestepped the issue directly and ruled that any statement made to an agent who is part of a treatment team managed by a psychiatrist is protected. See Com v. Simmons, 719 A.2d. 336, 341 (Pa.S. 1998). Under Com v. Kyle, supra, the same principle appears to apply to a psychologist. This court however, did not extend this to social workers not working under a psychologist/psychiatrist. (Opinion 25)

On the subject of the notes taken by the defendant father in the context of the criminal proceeding at the specific request of his attorneys, these documents were also held to be attorney client privileged even though the defendant could not recall how they came about. The warranty of the attorneys representing him that they had asked their client to provide the notes (as reflected in their affidavits) was sufficient to uphold the privilege.

Although decided in a tort setting, the parsing of the extent of these privileges is worthy of consideration in both a custody and family law setting generally.

Farrell v. Regola, 2016 Pa. Super. 241 (J-A07021-16) 566 WDA 2015   Decided 11/8/16

Psst, can I stop whispering in your ear and just email you instead? Its work-product.
Psst, can I stop whispering in your ear and just email you instead? Its protected as work-product.

Many of my cases involve the use of expert witnesses; individuals hired to review and testify about a specific issue or topic. Usually they are financial experts whose job is value a particular asset such as a business, while other experts could be psychologists conducting a custody evaluation. In other areas of law, there are individuals qualified as experts in virtually every conceivable topic and issue.  Whatever the underlying issue of a case, it is reasonable to assume there is an expert out there prepared to testify about it.

Consequently, communication between an attorney and the expert working on the case is critical and often encompasses trial strategy. It is vitally important that the expert and the attorney can openly and easily communicate about the case.  Not too long ago, however, this relationship and communication became subject to discovery in the case of Barrick et al. v. Holy Spirit Hospital of the Sisters of the Christian Charity et al.  At the time, the trial court ruled that expert testimony was subject to Pennsylvania’s liberal discovery rules and should be turned over to the other side. This was a radical departure from commonly held beliefs and practices protecting this communication and created significant consternation among attorneys.

The Superior Court heard the case in 2011 and overruled the trial court’s decision and barred the production of communication between a surgeon serving as an expert and the plaintiff’s attorney in a personal injury case. Attorneys across the state breathed a sigh of relief; they could actually email their experts again.

Recently, any ambiguity was mostly removed when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court’s decision through a split, 3-3 decision (an evenly divided court results in affirmation of the Superior Court decision). I say mostly because it was a 3-3 split, but in affirming the decision, three justices created a bright-line rule denying the production of expert/attorney communication.

The argument that communications with experts did not fall within the work-product doctrine of confidentiality and were critical for counsel to the cross-examination and critiquing by counsel was not accepted by the Court. The Court felt that by having the opportunity to cross-examine the expert, there was sufficient opportunity to attack his/her opinion without having to divulge communications between the expert and attorney.

This is an important decision in Pennsylvania and affects every litigator, regardless of area of expertise and will allow for experts and attorneys to freely exchange ideas without fear that they will turn into trial exhibits.

Photo Credit: www.health.com

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a resident of 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