Albert and Boston Public Schools – BSEA # 06-6508
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
In Re: Albert1 and Boston Public Schools
BSEA # 06-6508
RULING ON MOTION TO QUASH SUBPOENA
This Ruling addresses Student’s Motion to Quash Subpoena Duces Tecum and for a Protective Order ( Motion to Quash ).
Student has Crohn’s disease and, as a secondary disability, depression and anxiety. Student’s disabilities caused him to be unable to complete successfully his 9 th grade at the Boston Latin School (Boston Latin), initially during the 2004-2005 school year and again during the 2005-2006 school year.
On June 20, 2006, Student filed with the BSEA a due process complaint requesting a hearing. On July 19, 2006, Student filed with the BSEA a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment . By ruling dated August 11, 2006, this motion was allowed, requiring that Student be permitted to enroll in the 9 th grade of Boston Latin for the 2006-2007 school year.
On February 2, 2007, Student filed a Motion for Leave to File Amended Due Process Complaint ( Motion to Amend ) seeking to add claims to their original hearing request relative to the question of whether Boston Latin has been and currently is providing a reasonable accommodation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act during the 2006-2007 school year. By ruling dated February 13, 2007, Student’s Motion to Amend was allowed.
Student filed his Motion to Quash on February 20, 2007. Boston filed its opposition on February 23, 2007. On February 27, 2007, Student filed a memorandum in further support of the Motion to Quash . A telephonic Motion hearing was conducted on February 28, 2007.
In order to apprise the parties in a timely manner, an order was issued on February 28, 2007 denying, in part, the Motion to Quash . This Ruling sets forth the reasoning underlying that order and takes the place of the order.
B. Subpoena that is the Subject of this Ruling and Statutory Privilege
Boston has requested a subpoena duces tecum for the purpose of requiring the records of Dr. Marcel Fajnzylber to be produced to Boston’s attorneys. Dr. Fajnzylber is a licensed psychologist who has been treating Student for more than one year.
It is not disputed that Dr. Fajnzylber is a psychotherapist for purposes of MGL c. 233, § 20B, which provides in relevant part:
Except as herein provided, in any court proceeding and in any proceeding preliminary thereto and in legislative and administrative proceedings, a patient shall have the privilege of refusing to disclose, and of preventing a witness from disclosing, any communication, wherever made, between said patient and a psychotherapist relative to diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s mental or emotional condition.
The parties do not dispute that some or all of the records sought by Boston are protected under this statute. There is an exemption to this statutory protection of privilege, as found within subsection (c) of § 20B, which provides in relevant part:
The privilege granted hereunder shall not apply to any of the following communications . . . (c) In any proceeding, except one involving child custody, adoption, or adoption consent, in which the patient introduces his mental or emotional condition as an element of his claim or defense, and the judge or presiding officer finds that it is more important to the interests of justice that the communication be disclosed than that the relationship between patient and psychotherapist be protected.
The question to be considered is whether Boston has satisfied the two-prong standard of subsection (c) of MGL c. 233, § 20B, quoted immediately above, for the purpose of allowing its requested subpoena to issue.
It is not disputed that Student has introduced his mental or emotional condition as an element of their claims regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, thereby satisfying the first prong of § 20B(c). The essential question to be resolved is whether the second prong has been satisfied – that is, whether “ it is more important to the interests of justice that the communication be disclosed than that the relationship between patient and psychotherapist be protected.”
Following a line of several BSEA discovery rulings,2 Parents seek protection from any disclosure of the requested documents, or, in the alternative, request an in camera review of the privileged documents by the BSEA Hearing Officer for the purpose of determining which documents, if any, should be released, and further request that release of any documents to Boston occur only pursuant to a protective order. Boston seeks full disclosure or, in the alternative, an in camera review and then disclosure. Boston does not dispute the appropriateness of a protective order in the event that privileged documents are disclosed.
In order to address these questions, the issues to be resolved at hearing need to be considered. The issues, by agreement, are as follows:
1. Whether, during the current school year, Boston has failed (and continues to fail) to implement appropriately Student’s Section 504 plan; and if so, what relief is due.
2. Whether Student is entitled to accommodations in addition to those described within his 504 plan; and if so, what relief is due.
3. Whether during the two previous school years, Boston violated Student’s rights under section 504 and if so, whether Student is entitled to damages, compensatory services, and compensatory accommodations.
Boston does not contest that Student has been (and currently is) appropriately on a Section 504 plan. Accordingly, there is agreement that Student is eligible for protections under Section 504 during the time period that Student has been on a Section 504 plan, and therefore there can be no dispute that Student has had, during this time period, a disability that limits a major life activity for the purposes of 504 eligibility.
The parties agree also that during the time period in question, the manifestations of Student’s disability may have changed and that these changes may effect Boston’s obligations to Student under Section 504. For this reason, part of the hearing may appropriately address Student’s disability and its manifestations over time.
During the Motion Hearing on February 28, 2007, Boston agreed that Student has not been attending school regularly during the current school year. However, Boston also made clear that it has not conceded that Student’s lack of regular attendance is caused by his disabilities. Boston intends to determine, as best as it can, the nature and extent of Student’s disabilities and whether Student’s requested accommodations are necessary and appropriate to accommodate those disabilities. Boston seeks the records held by Dr. Fajnzylber for this purpose.
In light of this clarification of Boston’s position during the Motion Hearing, Student’s attorney stated that he expects to call Dr. Fajnzylber as a witness to testify as to Student’s depression and anxiety, for which Student is being treated by Dr. Fajnzylber.
In disputes regarding access by a defendant to privileged documents in criminal cases, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has sought to avoid “an unrestrained foray into confidential records in the hope [of] unearthing of some unspecified information.”3 As further explained by the SJC, “full disclosure [to the trial judge], predicated solely on a defendant’s uninformed request may yield nothing for the defense, and the privilege would have been pierced unnecessarily.”4 The identical concerns apply to disclosure of privileged records in a BSEA dispute.
In previous disputes, the BSEA has required an initial showing of likely relevance of the privileged documents prior to disclosure to the Hearing Officer for an in camera review.5 On this point, guidance may be found in Commonwealth v. Dwyer , 448 Mass. 122 (2006), in which the Supreme Judicial Court recently revised its protocol for addressing disclosure of privileged documents within the context of a criminal case. In Dwyer , the SJC made clear that the threshold inquiry includes a requirement that the defendant must “make a factual showing that the documents sought are relevant and have evidentiary value and that potential relevance and conclusory statements regarding relevance are insufficient….”6 Student has correctly argued that Boston has not met this standard since no adequate factual showing has been made.
However, this is not the end of the inquiry. The approach taken by the legislature in MGL c. 233, § 20B goes beyond a determination of relevancy. Under subsection (c) of § 20B, the judge or hearing officer must determine whether the “interests of justice” require disclosure by considering the value or importance of a party’s access to records along with the patient’s interest in protecting his or her relationship with the psychotherapist.7 Accordingly, the SJC has noted the multifaceted nature of the inquiry:
We do not mean to suggest that the presence of any particular factor or combination of factors is required as a prerequisite to disclosure of a patient’s communications pursuant to G.L. c. 233, § 20B(c). Whether “it is more important to the interests of justice that the communication be disclosed than that the relationship between patient and psychotherapist be protected” must be determined in light of all factors presented.8
In an often-quoted and careful analysis of the psychotherapist privilege in the context of a civil dispute, a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge concluded that when a patient has introduced his or her emotional or mental condition as an element of a claim or defense, disclosure of any privileged communication should not be allowed under § 20B unless “(1) the patient calls the psychotherapist as a witness or introduces evidence of the communication through her own testimony or otherwise, or (2) the party seeking access to the communication makes a specific showing that the truth-seeking function of the trial will be seriously impaired unless a disclosure of the communication is ordered.”9 The Judge added, with respect to the “specific showing” requirement, that the “obligation of the party seeking disclosure for this reason is to demonstrate a good faith, specific, and reasonable basis for believing that the records contain such information.”10 I find this analysis to provide useful guidance regarding the content and application of the § 20B(c) “interests of justice” standard, except that it does not explicitly include consideration of a student’s interests in protecting his or her relationship with the psychotherapist – for example, where disclosure of privileged information may disrupt a therapeutic alliance necessary to meet effectively a student’s special education needs.
Turning to the instant dispute, Student’s attorney anticipates calling Dr. Fajnzylber as a witness. In addition, I note, on the basis of representations made by Student’s attorney, that no claim is made that the therapeutic relationship between Student and Dr. Fajnzylber would likely be significantly harmed as a result of disclosure of the privileged documents.
I find these facts to satisfy a threshold inquiry of sufficient likelihood of satisfying the “interests of justice” standard within § 20B(c). Arguably, these facts would actually satisfy the “interests of justice” standard, resulting in full disclosure of the privileged documents without further consideration or review. However, the better practice, which is consistent with the SJC’s Dwyer decision, discussed above, is to require Hearing Officer review of the documents prior to full disclosure.
Through an in camera review, the Hearing Officer will determine which, if any, parts of the records should be disclosed to Boston’s attorneys consistent with MGL c . 233 § 20B(c). This process may include, for example, redacting sensitive material not relevant to the present dispute .11
To the extent that any privileged documents are provided to Boston, the Hearing Officer will issue a protective order.
The proposed protective order would provide the following safeguards regarding privileged documents disclosed to Boston:
1. limit disclosure to Boston’s attorneys, and to any expert for the sole purpose of advising Boston (and/or testifying on behalf of Boston) relative to Student’s disabilities,
2. require that any privileged documents disclosed to an expert be returned to Boston’s attorneys at the conclusion of the dispute, and
3. require that Boston keep these documents in a file which is (i) maintained by its attorneys, (ii) kept separate from Student’s school records, and (iii) confidential with access precluded except as provided within the protective order or further order from the BSEA.
The protective order would not preclude Boston from seeking to have any of the disclosed documents admitted into the evidentiary record of the BSEA hearing.
The Motion to Quash is denied , in part , in that a subpoena duces tecum has been issued requiring production, in hand, to the Hearing Officer at the BSEA offices no later than 5:00 PM on March 6, 2007 of the records maintained by Dr. Fajnzylber. The records will then be reviewed by the Hearing Officer, in camera , for the purpose of determining which of these records, if any, should be disclosed to Boston’s attorneys consistent with MGL c. 233, s. 20B.
In the event that disclosure is allowed, a protective order will be issued.
Not later than March 6, 2007 , either party may request any changes to the proposed protective order, described above.
By the Hearing Officer,
Date: March 2, 2007
“Albert” is a pseudonym chosen by the Hearing Officer to protect the privacy of the Student in publicly available documents.
In Re: Nashoba Regional School District , BSEA # 03-0860, 10 MSER 98 (SEA MA 2003); In Re: Saugus Public Schools , BSEA # 02-3886, 8 MSER 395 (SEA MA 2002); In Re: Wilmington Public Schools , BSEA # 97-3289, 3 MSER 171 (SEA MA 1997).
Commonwealth v. Bishop , 416 Mass. 169, 177 (1993), quoting from People v. Gissendanner , 48 N.Y.2d 543, 549 (1979).
Bishop , supra, at 182.
E.g., In Re: Plymouth Public Schools and the Department of Mental Health , BSEA # 06-2584, 12 MSER 28 (2006); In Re: Nashoba Regional School District , BSEA # 03-0860, 10 MSER 98 (SEA MA 2003).
Dwyer , supra, at 142 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Pursuant to the protocol developed by the SJC in Dwyer, a criminal defendant is allowed access to privileged documents based on a sufficient showing of need, and a principal focus of this inquiry is the relevancy of the documents.
Donovan v. Prussman , 2000 WL 1257463 (Mass.Super.Ct. Aug. 28, 2000) (Agnes, J.) .
Commonwealth v. Seabrooks , 433 Mass. 439, 450, n.10 (2001).
Donovan , supra, at 7 (emphasis supplied, footnote omitted).
Id . at n.4 (internal quotations omitted).
Note, however, that in Commonwealth v. Dwyer , 448 Mass. 122 (2006), the SJC adopted a new protocol that ended the practice of judicial in camera review of privileged documents in criminal cases, and substituted review by the judge, in conjunction with a limited review by defense counsel. Defense counsel is allowed to read the documents and take notes but not to copy or disclose, and then to make arguments to the judge. The Court explained:
Experience has also confirmed that trial judges cannot effectively assume the role of advocate when examining records. Requiring judges to take on the perspective of an advocate is contrary to the judge’s proper role as a neutral arbiter. Despite their best intentions and dedication, trial judges examining records before a trial lack complete information about the facts of a case or a defense to an indictment, and are all too often unable to recognize the significance, or insignificance, of a particular document to a defense.
Id . at 144-145 (internal citations omitted). However, in the case at bar, both parties agreed that, if I were to review the documents, the review may be done in camera , rather than as contemplated in Dwyer .