D.C. Superior Court Opinions

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E.g., April 26, 2017
E.g., April 26, 2017
Format: XXX-DWLR-XXXX
  • DOMESTIC RELATIONS

     

    MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY OF SPOUSE’S MENTAL HEALTH RECORDS


    Abstract: This D.C. Superior Court Memorandum Opinion thoroughly addresses the tension between the child custody statute, which comprehends, inter alia, consideration of the mental health of each competing parent, and the medical privilege statute, which strongly protects a person’s privacy right for mental health records, concluding that the former is outweighed by the latter. Facts: (1) The Plaintiff (the Father) and the Defendant (the Mother) are the parents of a son, who at the time of this action was just under two years of age. (2) In May 2012, the Father filed this action for divorce, in which he also sought sole custody of the child and the Mother filed a counterclaim, likewise seeking sole custody. (3) The basis for the Father’s custodial request was the Mother’s mental health history which included depression and anxiety. (4) The Mother’s response was that it was her husband’s controlling and abusive treatment during the marriage that had caused her emotional distress, but that her own continuing mental health treatment and prescribed medications had led to a state of normalcy, which allowed her to care adequately for the child. (5) To assess her assertions, the Father filed a motion for leave to gain access to her mental health treatment records and permission to depose her providers. (6) When she invoked the statutory medical privilege, he contended that she had waived it by placing her mental health at issue when she sought sole custody of the child. He pointed out that the custody statute makes a parent’s mental health a relevant factor for the Court’s consideration in such a suit, pursuant to the overarching standard of “the best interest of the child.” (7) The Court found that the motion presented “several novel questions concerning the interplay between the child custody statute and the laws concerning the confidentiality and disclosure of the mental health treatment information.” (8) Nevertheless, pending a formal ruling on the Father’s more expansive request, the Court required that the Mother undergo an independent court-ordered mental examination by a licensed psychologist. (9) As to the competing custody and privilege statutes, the Court found that the primary conflict was between the custody statute’s provision that the Court must consider “the mental and physical health of all persons involved” as one among the 17 factors in such a suit, and the medical privilege statute’s “broad privilege for confidential mental health treatment information” which “recognizes no express exception to the privilege … [for] a child custody case.” (10) The Court therefore framed the issues as follows: “Whether the child custody statute creates an implied exception in custody cases to the statutory privilege protecting the confidentiality of mental health treatment information and, if not, the circumstances, if any, in which a Judge presiding over a custody case may ... exercise his parens patriae powers to pierce the privilege in the best interest of the child or deem the statements or other actions of a party an implied waiver of the party’s statutory right to maintain the confidentiality of her mental health treatment information.” Rulings: The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Statutory Construction. The Court relied upon “several well-settled principles of statutory interpretation,” as follows: (1) Language Used. (a) The first rule is to give the language used in the statute its “ordinary meaning.” (b) Although the child custody statute is governed by the “best interest” standard, it does not limit a court’s consideration to the factors set forth therein. (c) At the same time, however, the medical privilege statute provides that a “mental health professional,” as defined by the statute “may not be permitted, without consent of the client, … to disclose any information, confidential in its nature, that [s/]he has acquired in attending to a client in a professional capacity, and that was necessary to enable him [or her] to act in that capacity.” (d) It expressly provides only four situations in which the privilege does not apply: (i) specified serious criminal and juvenile delinquency proceedings; (ii) criminal cases in which the competency or sanity of the defendant is at issue; (iii) juvenile delinquency or neglect proceedings in which the same issues are presented; and (iv) criminal, juvenile, and civil proceedings in which a person is alleged to have defrauded certain government medical programs. (e) The Court observed that “although the custody statute makes the mental health of the parents relevant to the determination of the best interest of the child, the statute is silent regarding the types of evidence that may be used in proving the parent’s mental condition, and it says nothing about piercing the [privileged] status of a parent’s confidential mental health information in custody cases.” (f) The Court therefore found that “the plain language of the custody and privilege statutes thus offers no support for the proposition advanced by … [the Father] that the custody statute creates an implied exception in custody cases to the statutory privilege protecting the confidentiality of mental health information.” (2) Harmonization. (a) A second method of statutory interpretation is to interpret two statutes relevant to each other “in a way that avoids unnecessary conflicts between them,” i.e., to “harmonize” them as though “they … [were enacted] together.” (b) In this regard, the Court found that “the statutes at issue can be harmonized in a way that gives full effect to both” because “the custody statute does not require … any preference for the use of confidential mental health information as proof of a party’s mental health condition.” (c) Rather, the Court found, “in most custody cases a party’s mental health can be adequately established through the lay testimony of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers, and, where justified by good cause, through the expert testimony of a mental health professional who has conducted a court-ordered examination of the party.” (d) This is because “normal … and abnormal conduct are matters of common knowledge so [that] lay persons may conclude from observation that certain observed conduct is abnormal.” (3) Chronological Order. (a) Similarly important is the order in which the statutes were enacted, the more recent statute usually governing any inconsistency. (b) This approach would cause the medical privilege statute – which had undergone numerous amendments between 1963 and 2012 -- to control. (c) The Court carefully noted, however, that in the event an appellate court disagreed with this interpretation, a review of the respective statutes’ legislative histories showed that the sequential revisions in the medical privilege statute had “extended the scope of the … privilege … to include” several health care providers beyond physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists … to any person whom a client reasonably believes to be … a mental health professional.” At the same time, however, no amendment provided for an exception to the medical privilege for child custody cases. (d) In contrast, the custody statute has remained in the same form since 1977. (4) Specificity. (a) The final rule of construction relied upon by the Court was the rule that a more specific statute controls over a more general one regarding similar topics. (b) The Court found that the more recently-amended privilege statute, though expansive, “provides with significant specificity the extent to which the privilege applies to confidential mental health treatment information.” (c) Likewise in contrast, the custody statute, while specific on other topics, “refers only generally to the requirement that the court consider the mental health of all individuals involved in determining the best interest of a child,” which made the privilege statute the “more specific” of the two, the Court found. (d) Although the legislative history of the privilege statute did refer to providing a “fairer process for formally resolving marital disputes concerning … custody … of children,” the Court found that its “legislative history sheds no particular light on either the decision to include the mental and physical health of all individuals involved in the list of factors to be considered or the type of evidence … that would be used as proof of the mental condition of the person involved in a custody dispute.” (e) The Court’s research also revealed support for the priority of the privilege statute as a matter of serving the “public interest” (i) in persuasive case law from the U.S. Supreme Court and other jurisdictions and (ii) in the mental health provider community at large. The rationale was that “it is in a child’s best interest that his parents actually obtain the mental health treatment they need” and therefore “parents must not be unnecessarily discouraged from seeking such treatment by fears that … confidential statements made in the course of therapy will be used against them in litigation over the custody of … [a] child.” (5) Consequently, the Court found that “the potential costs of court-ordered disclosures of confidential mental health treatment information cannot be overstated.” (6) Accordingly, it rejected the Father’s argument, as a general proposition, “that the District’s child custody statute creates an implied exception in custodial cases to the statutory privilege protecting the confidentiality of mental health treatment information,” finding this contention to be “contrary to the plain language of the custody and privilege statues, their legislative histories, the rules of statutory construction, and sound public policy.” (B) Parens
    Patriae
    . (1) Having made that general ruling, however, the Court also recognized that its role as parens
    patriae
    both enabled and required it to act as “more than just a moderator” in child custody cases because this genre of litigation does not involve “a run-of-the-mill dispute in which only the parties’ interests are implicated.” (2) Rather, in order to determine the child’s best interest, a court “should do … [its] best to obtain all the information needed for a judicious disposition” to that end. Thus, “an appropriate balance must be struck between the court’s parens patriae role and the countervailing interest at the core of the statutory privilege protecting the confidentiality of mental health treatment information.” (3) To fulfill that role, there is “general judicial authority” which holds that “a judge in a custody case … [may] pierce the privilege … [in the] limited … circumstances in which a party’s mental condition is truly material to the custody determination and other less intrusive sources of information … to enable the court to perform its essential role of … determining the child’s best interest” are either unavailable or insufficient. (4) In a situation where a party affirmatively puts his or her mental health that issue in a child custody case, the Court ruled, “the rule of privilege protecting such communications must yield to the dominant duty of the court guard the welfare of its wards.” (5) Nonetheless, the Court ruled that the Father had “not satisfied this standard,” either. (6) In any event, the Court had already ordered the Mother to undergo an independent mental health examination, to say nothing of the lay witness appraisals that would also be available. (C) Waiver. (1) Finally, the Court addressed the question of whether the Mother had waived the medical privilege. (2) The common law rule is that “a person who [affirmatively] places his or her medical condition at issue through the filing of a lawsuit impliedly waives the protection of the doctor-patient privilege regarding relevant medical evidence.” (3) The pertinent statute recognizes an implied waiver in “civil or administrative proceedings,” although, the Court found, it is “not clear” whether a child custody case is such a “civil proceeding,” since such matters sound in equity in the Family Court, rather than the Civil Division of the Superior Court. (4) Ultimately, however, the Court determined that it need not make such a ruling because “whether a custody case is a civil proceeding, … the Court finds that … [the Mother] has not impliedly waived her privilege under either of the prevailing legal standards.” (5) Rather, the Court ruled, it was the Father who had “placed … [the Mother]’s mental health ‘at issue’ through the ‘affirmative act of … [his] filing suit’ and thereby ‘initiated’ … [the issue of the Mother]’s mental health as ‘an element of his claim’ for custody.” (6) Although the Mother responded by denying that her mental health was a detriment and asserting that she was a fit custodial parent, she had not herself placed any records, comments, or diagnoses of her mental health care professional on the record, the Court ruled. (7) Finally, it re-emphasized that it had already ordered that she undergo an independent mental-health examination and, under those circumstances, it found “nothing about … [her] assertion of her statutory privilege that is ‘manifestly unfair’ to .. [the Father] or inconsistent with the purposes for which the privilege is intended.” Conclusions: Based on the foregoing, the Trial Court concluded that (1) the Father had not made out any implied waiver of the Mother’s statutory medical privilege, whether based on the common law or statutory law standard, (2) although the Court noted that its opinion could change as the case develops, (3) so that at this point the Father’s motion for discovery into this area was denied.

  • Tort Law

     

    Expert Testimony Regarding Standard of Care / Common Knowledge Exception / Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress / Zone of Danger / Special Relationship Exception / Respondeat Superior


    Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted for claims of negligent training and supervision and negligent infliction of emotional distress and claim of respondeat superior is dismissed in a case arising from a traffic accident where a police car hit a pedestrian. A negligent training and supervision claim fails as a matter of law where Plaintiff has not named an expert to testify and therefore cannot establish the applicable standard of care. The training of police officers in vehicle operation and managing the scene of a traffic accident are not common knowledge among laypersons and thus require expert testimony to establish the standard of care. Summary judgment granted for Defendants on claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”) as there is no genuine issue of material fact. The Zone of Danger standard for NIED requires a party to plead that she had been in a zone of physical danger. Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case where she has failed to provide evidence to support that or the contention that the emotional distress suffered was serious and verifiable. The Special Relationship Exception does not apply since Plaintiff had no relationship with the police officers before the accident that necessarily implicated her emotional well-being. Additionally, there is no genuine issue of material fact that the actions of questioning plaintiff at the scene and taking photographs of her were especially likely to cause serious emotional distress or that Plaintiff even suffered such distress. The doctrine of respondeat superior is theory of liability, not an independent cause of action, so Plaintiff’s claim is dismissed.

  • Part 1 of this opinion can be found in the December 9, 2013 (141_DWLR-2637) edition of the DWLR.

  • TORT LAW

     

    Conspiracy Theory of Jurisdiction / Minimum Contacts / Jurisdictional Discovery / Tortious Interference with a Business Relationship / Principal-Agent Relationship / Defamation / Civil Conspiracy / Aiding and Abetting Tortious Acts / Conversion / Breach of Trust / Joinder / Statute of Limitations / Fraudulent Concealment Doctrine / Continuing Torts Doctrine

    Omnibus opinion regarding various counterclaims by parties UCI and Preston Moon arising from litigation over alleged misconduct in the leadership of the Unification Church and its subsidiaries are dismissed due to issue. Several are barred by issues of jurisdiction, failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and improper joinder. Jurisdiction: Counterclaim Plaintiff UCI has not sufficiently pled to support a prima facieclaim for jurisdiction under the conspiracy theory of personal jurisdiction where it merely alleges the existence of an agreement without any supporting details or factual allegations. Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Counterclaim Defendants Sean, Tatiana, and Justin Moon since their sporadic and infrequent visits to D.C. are insufficient minimum contacts to constitute “transacting business” and the injuries alleged do not arise from those contacts. Jurisdictional discovery for these Counterclaim Defendants is inappropriate because it would at most reveal additional evidence of sporadic contact with D.C. insufficient to establish personal jurisdiction. Counterclaim against Sean, Tatiana, and Justin Moon is dismissed. Counterclaim Plaintiff UCI has sufficiently pled in personam jurisdiction over Counterclaim Defendants Mission Foundation and Tongil Foundation.Tortious Interference with a Business Relationship: Counterclaim Defendants cannot be liable for tortious interference due to alleged false statements where Counterclaim Plaintiff UCI has not adequately alleged a principal-agent relationship between them and the people who allegedly made the statements. Such relationship does exist between Holy Spirit Association (USA) and its executive vice president. Counter complaint has sufficiently pled that various Counterclaim Defendants were on notice that their actions constitute tortious interference where they were alleged to republish allegedly false and malicious statements on their website, caused an unlawful transfer of millions of dollars from Counterclaim Plaintiff UCI’s subsidiary to themselves, caused the cessation of millions of dollars of donations to UCI, and made false and malicious statements about UCI. Such liability cannot be imputed to Sean, Tatiana, and Justin Moon, whom UCI has alleged are personally liable for all acts or omissions by Unification adherents and affiliates solely due to their roles as purported leaders of the movement. UCI’s claim that Counterclaim Defendants interfered with prospective donations requires allegations of independently tortious acts, which have not been made. Claim that Counterclaim Defendants took actions that diminished dividends UCI would receive from subsidiaries is too speculative to satisfy the proximate cause requirement of tortious interference. Alleged statements leveling accusations of financial impropriety and filing intra-family lawsuits are sufficiently capable of defamatory meaning and provably false to be actionable in a tortious interference claim but statements calling someone a “Fallen Adam” who is being sued by someone called a “Fallen Lucifer” or “Satan” are not. Civil Conspiracy: UCI’s claim that Counterclaim Defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy fails as it has pled no facts establishing that an agreement was actually made and simply alleging parallel conduct is insufficient to demonstrate such agreement.Aiding and Abetting: The Court of Appeals has not recognized a tort for aiding and abetting the tortious acts of others so UCI’s claims fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Conversion: UCI has met its burden in its conversion claim by alleging Justin Moon and the Tongil Foundation wrongfully exercised control over its tax returns and business information when using them in other litigation and in statements attacking UCI and Rev. Moon. Breach of Trust: UCI’s breach of trust claim fails as it cites no capacity other than as a trustee in which it could hold power of appointment over trust property and thus cannot be considered a beneficiary. Counterclaim Plaintiff Preston Moon’s allegations that Counterclaim Defendants Dr. Kim, Dr. Joo, and Dr. Pak failed to take reasonable care to prevent breaches by co-trustees state a claim upon which relief can be granted as those claims do not require allegations of knowledge of co-trustees alleged breaches. Joinder: Conversion count is improperly joined against Counterclaim Defendants Justin Moon and Tongil Foundation as they were not original plaintiffs and the claims against them did not rise out of the same nucleus of fact as claims against existing parties. Counterclaim Defendant Dr. Pak is properly joined as the claims against him arise from the same transaction as those against Dr. Kim and Dr. Joo and involve common questions of law and fact. Statute of Limitations: Counterclaims against Dr. Pak are not barred by statute of limitations as Counterclaim Plaintiffs allege they were unaware of the existence of the trust until the initial claim was filed and the issue of whether Counterclaim Plaintiffs should have been on notice regarding the alleged breaches is best addressed after discovery. The motion to dismiss stage is similarly too early to determine the application of the fraudulent concealment doctrine, the continuing torts doctrine, and the doctrine of laches.

  • Attorney’s Fees

    Windfall / Applicable Laffey Rate / Fees for Time Spent Defending Clear Error / Discretion to Cut Fees

     

    Request for plaintiff’s attorney’s fees arising from a successful employment discrimination case is granted in part. There is no rule of proportionality so a total fee award 73% of the amount of judgment is not inherently inappropriate and a supplemental fee for legal work an attorney actually performed is not a windfall. It is within the Court’s discretion to award fees consistent with Laffey rates current the year the motion was filed rather than the year most of the work was done as an adjustment for delay in payment and the work performed, legal research and drafting, is at the core of appellate advocacy and not unreasonable to assign to an attorney of counsel’s experience. While the Court will not deduct fees from time spent trying to
    enforce judgment, fees from times spent defending erroneous jury instructions will be deducted as they were clearly wrong and Plaintiff could have conceded error on appeal and limited argument to harmlessness. Court will not exercise discretion to cut fees in response to errors by Plaintiff’s counsel as such cuts would be duplicative and contrary to the Human Rights Act’s legislative instruction that prevailing parties are entitled
    to attorney’s fees.

  • Civil Procedure

    Subpoena / Speech or Debate Privilege


    Motion by non-party City Councilmember to quash Plaintiff’s subpoena and compel production of documents is granted as it runs afoul of the Speech or Debate statute D.C. Code § 1-301.42. While it is possible that materials relating to investigation, fact-finding, and oversight of the Plaintiff would include documents not covered by the Speech or Debate statute, Plaintiff must make a particularized request for them and explain why the Councilmember would be involved beyond his official capacity in connection with oversight and legislation. The burden is not on subpoenaed legislators to identify non-exempt documents.

  • Insurance Law

    Denial of Defense and Coverage / Types of Discrimination Covered by Policy


    Motion to dismiss denied. Plaintiff has set forth sufficient factual allegations that an insurance policy providing coverage for a suit alleging injury that is “caused by an offense of: ... discrimination, harassment or segregation based on a person’s protected human characteristics as established by law” could cover a suit alleging discrimination based on “sources of income.” The policy neither contains an applicable law provision nor defines “established by law,” rendering it unclear enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

  • Defamation

     D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act / Likely to Succeed on the Merits / Provably False Statements / Fair Comment Privilege / Actual Malice / Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress / 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss


    Anti-SLAPP and 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss a defamation suit brought by a scientist against media organizations and writers over accusations of data fraud are denied. A Plaintiff seeking to show he is likely to succeed on the merits on a defamation claim in response to an anti-SLAPP motion must satisfy a standard comparable to that used for a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Assertions that Plaintiff’s research was “fraudulent,” “bogus,” “scientific misconduct,” and “data manipulation” are not mere opinion or hyperbole but statements based on provably false facts sufficient to demonstrate a prima facie case for libel. Fair Comment privilege is not available where challenged statements are misstatements of fact. Where Plaintiff’s work has been investigated and found accurate several times, continued accusations that Plaintiff’s work is “intellectually bogus” shows a reckless disregard for the truth sufficient to indicate that further discovery may uncover evidence of actual malice and possibly sustain a finding of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants’ motion to dismiss pursuant to 12(b)(6) is denied for the same reasons.

  • Employment Law

     

    Retaliatory Discharge / Disparate Treatment Based on Disability / Hostile Work Environment / Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress / Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

     

    Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment granted in a suit alleging termination and discrimination resulting from Plaintiff’s cooperation with a criminal investigation of Defendant employer. Plaintiff has not proffered evidence to prove prima facie case for wrongful retaliatory discharge where her own testimony conflicts with her claim she was discharged for refusing to violate the law. Plaintiff’s termination does not fall within the public policy exception to at-will employment where she has not cited a specific statute that was violated or alleged that Defendant asked her to not cooperate with the police, refrain from reporting problems, or colluding in a cover-up. There is no genuine issue of fact that Plaintiff was terminated due to her disability where the record shows Plaintiff was fully functional while medicated, Defendant was aware of Plaintiff’s mental disorder when it hired her, and Plaintiff had failed to comply with company policy. Plaintiff has not made a prima facie case for a hostile work environment where, since she is fully functional with medication, she is not a member of a protected class and the only specific insult she alleged receiving was “Sherlock Holmes,” which does not appear to be related to a mental disorder and is commonly thought of as a compliment as he is a “superior detective.” Plaintiff’s allegations of mere stress and anxiety do not rise to the level of the severe emotional distress necessary to succeed in a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. While the employer-employee relationship is a “special relationship” for the purposes of a negligent infliction of emotional distress finding, such a claim cannot succeed where the record does not show that Defendant was negligent or that said negligence caused Plaintiff emotional distress.

  • Family Law

    Notice of Hearing and Order Directing Appearance


    In a civil paternity action, the court is not permitted to issue a bench warrant for a respondent based solely upon his failure to appear or otherwise respond to a Notice of Hearing and Order Directing Appearance (“NOHODA”) served upon the respondent’s person when the NOHODA was issued by the court based upon a petition which merits sua sponte dismissal. NOHODA was promulgated in conflict with the legislature’s intention that adjudication of paternity issues be entirely civil in nature and the process lacks adequate procedural safeguards to protect against erroneous arrest. There is no specific statutory authorization for either the issuance or enforcement of a NOHODA. Civil contempt is not applicable as the basis for a bench warrant for failure to respond to a NOHODA since there has been no judgment issued and it would provide no direct benefit to the complainant. Criminal contempt is inapplicable as there is no showing that respondent’s failure to appear was willful and the NOHODA did not include notices concerning the duties and protections of the subpoenaed person.

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