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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Protecting Victim Privacy in Psychotherapist-Client Relationships

November 16, 2011

An attorney representing a psychotherapist contacted NCVLI seeking assistance in a civil case, in which the psychotherapist was being sued for libel by a teacher whom she had reported to the school as potentially sexually abusing her minor client and others.  Pennsylvania, where the case is filed, has a mandatory reporting statute and it states that those who report suspected abuse are immune from suit unless they make the report in bad faith.  In addition, there is a legal presumption that a report is made in good faith. 

While the psychotherapist followed the law and the ethics of her profession in her efforts to protect the minor, the plaintiff-teacher subpoenaed the psychotherapist to testify about why she made the report, asserting that she did not make the report in good faith. The plaintiff-teacher provided no support for this claim and yet the trial court originally ruled that the psychotherapist must testify to rebut the teacher’s claim.   If the psychotherapist was compelled to testify, the minor’s private and privileged communications made during the course of therapy might be exposed.

This is when NCVLI stepped in, providing consultation and legal research to the psychotherapist’s civil attorneys.  Our work included research on SLAPP suits.  SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”  These lawsuits are designed to censor, intimidate, and silence persons accessing courts and other systems by burdening them with the cost of a civil suit.   

Fortunately, the court reversed itself, ruling that the psychotherapist-client privilege (a relationship that is confidential and therefore not subject to disclosure) prevented the testimony.  NCVLI will continue working with the civil attorneys as needed in the case to ensure that this minor’s and future victims’ privacy are protected in Pennsylvania.


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