By Paul R. Pace, News staff
NASW member Karen Beyer made history 20 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor that social workers like her deserved the protection of psychotherapist-client privilege in the federal court system.
It’s a legal interpretation that may be taken for granted today, but Beyer remembers she faced the potential of jail time for being in contempt of court for refusing a judge’s order to hand over records of her client, who later became a defendant in the case Jaffee v. Redmond.
“My client had been traumatized,” Beyer said of that time. “This legal process was very difficult for her. I was concerned about her well-being.”
The case involved a female police officer in 1991 who shot and killed a man she believed was about to attack another man with a knife.
Beyer provided counseling to the officer after the incident.
The dead man’s relatives sued the officer and her employer for excessive force. Beyer eventually was served a subpoena for the police officer’s psychotherapy records from their sessions together. The officer wanted the records kept private and not released in the litigation.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs believed the records could help their case and the judge offered no resistance to the request, Beyer explained.
“Up to that point, everybody had been avoiding this whole issue,” Beyer said of the federal rules of evidence applied to psychotherapist-client privilege for the records of clinical social workers. “Congress didn’t want to rule on it. The federal courts didn’t want to rule on it. People were reluctant in the field to challenge it.”
“The state laws are generally more stringent about confidentiality than federal,” Beyer noted. “I felt the state laws were appropriate. I felt I needed to take a stand on that.”
It took five years of legal wrangling in the federal courts before the U.S. Supreme Court released its majority opinion in June 1996, stating the client’s clinical treatment records could be shielded from disclosure and extending the psychotherapist-client privilege to licensed social workers.
During the grueling legal process, Beyer said, “I never knew if someone was going to send me to jail.”
NASW, through its Legal Defense Fund, filed an amicus brief in the case and it was quoted in three separate parts of the high court’s majority ruling.
Carolyn Polowy, NASW’s former general counsel, assisted in the preparation of the NASW amicus brief in the Supreme Court.
“The decision was critical for the recognition of the social work profession on a level with psychologists and psychiatrists whose client records were protected from disclosure under the Federal Rules of Evidence,” she said. “The ruling in Jaffee also laid a foundation for the protection of clinical psychotherapy notes from disclosure under HIPAA regulations.”
Beyer, who now serves as executive director of the Ecker Center for Mental Health in Elgin, Ill., said she never imagined she would play a vital role in the landmark decision of client confidentiality.
“Looking back, I am thankful for the outcome of the decision that the Supreme Court made,” the soft-spoken Beyer said. “It was a point in time when some of the judges on the Supreme Court had enough experience and general knowledge about the therapeutic process. Had it happened 20 years earlier, I don’t know if the outcome would have been the same.”
Today, Beyer is also a member of the NASW LDF board of trustees. Among its objectives, the LDF provides financial legal assistance and support for legal cases and issues of concern to NASW members and the social work profession.
“Legal issues are really important to me personally,” Beyer said of why she serves. “It’s one of the things I am interested in and I find fascinating. The LDF is a very good thing. Social workers need that help and I am glad to be a part of the process.”
The Jaffe v. Redmond amicus brief and other NASW LDF legal briefs can be found at socialworkers.org/dnn/ldfbriefs/Home.aspx.
From the June 2016 NASW News.