Medical Records in Family Law Cases

In family law cases, a party may seek medical records for several reasons, perhaps to show whether someone is able to work in child support and alimony cases. Another common reason for requesting them is during child custody case to show whether a parent is physically able to care for a child, or whether a parent is mentally stable.

What Are Medical Records?

Medical records (MRs) are described differently in federal and state laws. The critical starting point is determining what MRs are actually being requested, and for what time period. Examples of MRs include pharmacy records, hospital records, therapy records, and patient files at the doctor’s office. MRs can include other sensitive information about STDs, substance abuse, pregnancy and abortion, and mental health history showing a person was suicidal or involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

Seeking the Records

MRs are confidential. As such, a patient must generally give consent before MRs are provided to anyone. Attorneys typically request MRs in the civil discovery process, usually by requests for documentation to be produced. An attorney may also issue a subpoena to be served on the other party or to a third party, such as the doctor or the pharmacy.

The Law

MRs are privileged, meaning they are generally protected from being disclosed unless the patient consents or there is a court order requiring disclosure. The patient, doctor or other medical provider may file a motion objecting to the release of the MRs. The party seeking access to MRs then has the burden of proof to show they are “necessary to a proper administration of justice.” NC Gen. Stat. §8-53 et seq. There are federal laws such as HIPAA that hold the medical provider to certain standards, as well as state laws. There are special laws that protect mental health and substance abuse records.

What Can the Judge Do?

In Pitt County, the MRs are usually sealed and held by the clerk of court (or the judge) until the trial. Only if the judge finds the MRs are relevant to the issues in the trial, he or she then moves to the next step of deciding what to do with the MRs.  A judge might review the records in camera, which means privately in his or her office. The attorneys do not have access to the records unless the judges makes a ruling on whether some or all of the MRs are admitted as evidence.

After reading the MRs, the judge can deny or grant the motion to admit them as evidence. Or, the judge might limit the scope of the MRs. For example, the only records given to the attorneys might be for the last six months instead of the three years of records the attorney subpoenaed. For any MRs given to the attorneys, the judge has the authority to require the attorneys shred the records after the case is finished. Judges sometimes order the MRs to remain exclusively with the attorneys, not to be reviewed or copied by the clients. Even if the judge doesn’t require the attorneys to do anything specific with the records, attorneys are still bound by State Bar ethics rules to maintain confidentiality of records.

Is Your Life an Open Book? Quashing Subpoenas

Subpoenas require witness to appear at the courthouse to testify and/or produce evidence such as “records, books, papers, documents, electronically stored information, or other tangible things.” (NC Subpoena form). Although people sometimes call it squashing, the motion to quash a subpoena has nothing to do with the yellow vegetable with the same name. Instead, it is a motion that can be filed if the person or entity being subpoenaed objects to the request for information and/or the presence of a witness in court or at a deposition. If the subpoena is quashed, that means the judge can render it void, or possibly limit it to make it more reasonable. Family law cases usually involve the spouse, former spouse and other family members as witnesses. But there are also third party witnesses such as teachers, doctors, social workers, neighbors, or co-workers. A witness might also be an alleged sexual partners of a spouse.

What’s Fair Game?

Most of the time in family law cases, the parties in the lawsuit must disclose information about assets, debts, and in some cases, marital fault. Subpoenas in property cases usually mean there are subpoenas issued for bank accounts, vehicle titles, retirement documents and anything that shows there are assets or debts. A co-owner of assets might be subpoenaed for information related to the value of a business.

Marital Fault

If you’re not happy about being subpoenaed by your girlfriend’s ex-husband, is that a ground for filing the motion to quash? Probably not, if her husband is alleging she engaged in an adulterous relationship with you, because that is an allegation of marital fault. Perhaps your credit card statements are also subpoenaed because you met her on a social networking dating web site that will appear on the statement. It might well be fair game too. On the other hand, a judge might grant the motion to quash the subpoena if the case involves the division of marital property, which involves only financial fault, not marital fault involving an intimate sexual relationship.

Medical Records

If your ex has served you with a subpoena to produce your medical records, those records may or may not be required by the judge. Medical records are privileged, meaning the general rule protects you from disclosing them. After all, they document everything from your weight, medications and illnesses, to STDs and possible substance abuse. As with any rules, there are some exceptions. The judge in a child custody case might deny your motion to quash the subpoena because he or she makes a ruling that the best interest of your child overrides privileged medical records. If you have an alcohol addiction, for example, the judge might very well deny the motion to quash the subpoena because your child’s safety is at issue. If you have a pending child support case and you are alleging you are unable to work, the judge probably will require you to provide your medical records, but might limit how far back the records must be provided.

The Rules in North Carolina

Anyone objecting to a subpoena has a legal duty to appear at the time indicated on the subpoena with the requested items unless the judge enters an order saying otherwise. In NC, the subpoena form itself states the protections and lists objections a judge will consider if you make a motion to quash a subpoena. Grounds to file a motion to quash the subpoena include avoiding undue burden or expense complying with it, allowing reasonable time for compliance, disclosing privileged or other protected information and disclosing trade secrets. Subject to a judge’s interpretation, a subpoena cannot be unreasonable or oppressive, and cannot be outside of certain legal procedures. A witness may be “reasonably compensated for the cost of producing the records, books, papers, documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things specified in the subpoena.” (Subpoena form).

Can We Close the Courtroom When I Testify?

Nobody enjoys court, especially when it involves testifying about personal things such as infidelity in an alimony case or allegations of substance abuse in a child custody trial. Do you have the right to ask the judge to clear the courtroom, closing the trial to everyone except the parties to the lawsuit or their witnesses? Probably not. It is quite rare for a judge in NC to have a proceeding in “closed court.”

The General Rule

In North Carolina family law cases, the general rule is that trials are conducted in “open court.” This means all members of the public have the right to be present in the courtroom during trials, subject to safety concerns such as exceeding the fire marshal’s maximum occupancy in the courtroom. Article 1, Sec. 18 of the Constitution of North Carolina clearly states “All courts shall be open. . .” While people might think of the press being allowed to be present in the courtroom during trials, the right also applies to family law trials. In NC courts, you generally don’t have a right to privacy.

Exceptions to the Rule?

In France v. France, 209 NC App. 406 (2011), the NC Court of Appeals rejected the argument that there was a constitutional right to privacy in custody cases because children are involved. The Court ruled that the constitutional rights of the public to open court proceedings outweighed any privacy rights of the parties. The Court made some exceptions to the general rule, mainly for children in  adoption proceedings or “where a child is testifying about alleged abuse that child has suffered. . .” which would certainly involve testimony of rape, molestation or incest. France at page 417. When you file a family law case such as child custody or alimony, the lawsuit is generated by a document called a complaint, which is filed at the court-house. The on-going documents that are filed in the case, such as counterclaims or motions, are also public record.

Anatomy of a Subpoena

What is a Subpoena?

Subpoenas are documents that require a witness to appear in court or at a deposition to testify.  A subpoena or subpoena duces tecum (rarely called by that name) may require a witness to provide documents or other evidence, in addition to requiring a witness to appear in court to testify.

What if You Don’t Respond?

A witness must be prepared to testify and/or produce the documents unless and until the judge rules otherwise. A court may hold the witness in contempt of court for failure to comply with a subpoena. A judge has the authority to incarcerate a person who refuses to testify or produce records as required by a subpoena.

The Rules

An attorney (or any interested party) may file a motion to quash (or cancel) a subpoena.  The decision about whether materials must be provided, or if a witness must testify, rests with the judge.  Sometimes judges will rule there are valid reasons to override the objections to a subpoena. This may be because the information subpoenaed is subject to a privilege, such as attorney-client privilege. Other types of special rules might apply to information requested, such as medical records.

Or, a judge can limit what must be released pursuant to the subpoena.  Sometimes judges will ask the person who has the information to “redact” it.  Redacting is taking a marker and blotting out certain information, such as the name of the person who reported suspected abuse of a child to Child Protective Services or social security numbers and dates of birth.  Judges may review the information “in camera” before making a ruling, which means he or she reviews the documentation in his or her office before allowing any of it to be released to the attorneys.

If You Are Served

A subpoena is usually served on someone by sheriff.  Not only can a sheriff hand the paperwork to you, he or she also has the legal authority to serve someone by telephone call. A North Carolina subpoena includes information for witnesses, explaining the duties and rights of a witness.  Call an attorney immediately if you are served, and time is of the essence. A court order is the only way to avoid obligations to testify or produce records.

Examples of reasons a court might enter an order if someone makes a proper motion:

The subpoena fails to allow reasonable time for compliance.

The subpoena requires disclosure of privileged or other protected matter and no exception or waiver applies to the privilege or protection.

The subpoena subjects a person to an undue burden or expense.

The subpoena is otherwise unreasonable or oppressive.

The subpoena is procedurally defective.

If you are served with a subpoena and want to know your rights or you need to file a motion to quash a subpoena, contact an attorney.  Time is of the essence, especially if you were served shortly before the trial date is scheduled.