Jaffee v. Redmond

Decision Date13 June 1996
Docket Number95266
Citation518 U.S. 1,135 L.Ed.2d 337,116 S.Ct. 1923
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

No. 95-266.

Argued February 26, 1996

Decided June 13, 1996


Petitioner, the administrator of decedent Allen's estate, filed this action alleging that Allen's constitutional rights were violated when he was killed by respondent Redmond, an on-duty police officer employed by respondent village. The court ordered respondents to give petitioner notes made by Karen Beyer, a licensed clinical social worker, during counseling sessions with Redmond after the shooting, rejecting their argument that a psychotherapist-patient privilege protected the contents of the conversations. Neither Beyer nor Redmond complied with the order. At trial, the jury awarded petitioner damages after being instructed that the refusal to turn over the notes was legally unjustified and the jury could presume that the notes would have been unfavorable to respondents. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that "reason and experience," the touchstones for acceptance of a privilege under Federal Rule of Evidence 501, compelled recognition of a psychotherapist-patient privilege. However, it found that the privilege would not apply if in the interests of justice, the evidentiary need for disclosure outweighed the patient's privacy interests. Balancing those interests, the court concluded that Beyer's notes should have been protected.

Held: The conversations between Redmond and her therapist and the notes taken during their counseling sessions are protected from compelled disclosure under Rule 501. Pp. 5-17.

(a) Rule 501 authorizes federal courts to define new privileges by interpreting "the principles of the common law . . . in the light of reason and experience." The Rule thus did not freeze the law governing privileges at a particular point in history, but rather directed courts to "continue the evolutionary development of testimonial privileges." Trammel v. United States, 445 U. S. 40, 47. An exception from the general rule disfavoring testimonial privileges is justified when the proposed privilege "promotes sufficiently important interests to outweigh the need for probative evidence . . . ." at 51. Pp. 5-7.

(b) Significant private interests support recognition of a psychotherapist privilege. Effective psychotherapy depends upon an atmosphere of confidence and trust, and therefore the mere possibility of disclosure of confidential communications may impede development of the relationship necessary for successful treatment. The privilege also serves the public interest, since the mental health of the Nation's citizenry, no less than its physical health, is a public good of transcendent importance. In contrast, the likely evidentiary benefit that would result from the denial of the privilege is modest. That it is appropriate for the federal courts to recognize a psychotherapist privilege is confirmed by the fact that all 50 States and the District of Columbia have enacted into law some form of the privilege, see Trammel v. United States, 445 U. S., at 48-50, and reinforced by the fact that the privilege was among the specific privileges recommended in the proposed privilege rules that were rejected in favor of the more open-ended language of the present Rule 501. Pp. 7-13.

(c) The federal privelege, which clearly applies to psychiatrists and psychologists, also extends to confidential communications made to licensed social workers in the course of psychotherapy. The reasons for recognizing the privilege for treatment by psychiatrists and psychologists apply with equal force to clinical social workers, and the vast majority of States explicitly extend a testimonial privilege to them. The balancing component implemented by the Court of Appeals and a few States is rejected, for it would eviscerate the effectiveness of the privilege by making it impossible for participants to predict whether their confidential conversations will be protected. Because this is the first case in which this Court has recognized a psychotherapist privilege, it is neither necessary nor feasible to delineate its full contours in a way that would govern all future questions. Pp. 13-16. 51 F. 3d 1346, affirmed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., joined as to Part III.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

After a traumatic incident in which she shot and killed a man, a police officer received extensive counseling from a licensed clinical social worker. The question we address is whether statements the officer made to her therapist during the counseling sessions are protected from compelled disclosure in a federal civil action brought by the family of the deceased. Stated otherwise, the question is whether it is appropriate for federal courts to recognize a "psychotherapist privilege" under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.


Petitioner is the administrator of the estate of Ricky Allen. Respondents are Mary Lu Redmond, a former police officer, and the Village of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, her employer during the time that she served on the police force. 1 Petitioner commenced this action against respondents after Redmond shot and killed Allen while on patrol duty.

On June 27, 1991, Redmond was the first officer to respond to a "fight in progress" call at an apartment complex. As she arrived at the scene, two of Allen's sisters ran toward her squad car, waving their arms and shouting that there had been a stabbing in one of the apartments. Redmond testified at trial that she relayed this information to her dispatcher and requested an ambulance. She then exited her car and walked toward the apartment building. Before Redmond reached the building, several men ran out, one waving a pipe. When the men ignored her order to get on the ground, Redmond drew her service revolver. Two other men then burst out of the building, one, Ricky Allen, chasing the other. According to Redmond, Allen was brandishing a butcher knife and disregarded her repeated commands to drop the weapon. Redmond shot Allen when she believed he was about to stab the man he was chasing. Allen died at the scene. Redmond testified that before other officers arrived to provide support, "people came pouring out of the buildings," App. 134, and a threatening confrontation between her and the crowd ensued.

Petitioner filed suit in Federal District Court alleging that Redmond had violated Allen's constitutional rights by using excessive force during the encounter at the apartment complex. The complaint sought damages under Rev. Stat. Section(s) 1979, 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 1983 and the Illinois wrongful death statute, Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 740, Section(s) 180/1 et seq. (1994). At trial, petitioner presented testimony from members of Allen's family that conflicted with Redmond's version of the incident in several important respects. They testified, for example, that Redmond drew her gun before exiting her squad car and that Allen was unarmed when he emerged from the apartment building.

During pretrial discovery petitioner learned that after the shooting Redmond had participated in about 50 counseling sessions with Karen Beyer, a clinical social worker licensed by the State of Illinois and employed at that time by the Village of Hoffman Estates. Petitioner sought access to Beyer's notes concerning the sessions for use in cross-examining Redmond. Respondents vigorously resisted the discovery. They asserted that the contents of the conversations between Beyer and Redmond were protected against involuntary disclosure by a psychotherapist-patient privilege. The district judge rejected this argument. Neither Beyer nor Redmond, however, complied with his order to disclose the contents of Beyer's notes. At depositions and on the witness stand both either refused to answer certain questions or professed an inability to recall details of their conversations.

In his instructions at the end of the trial, the judge advised the jury that the refusal to turn over Beyer's notes had no "legal justification" and that the jury could therefore presume that the contents of the notes would have been unfavorable to respondents. 2 The jury awarded petitioner $45,000 on the federal claim and $500,000 on her state-law claim.

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. Addressing the issue for the first time, the court concluded that "reason and experience," the touchstones for acceptance of a privilege under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, compelled recognition of a psychotherapist-patient privilege. 3 51 F. 3d 1346, 1355 (1995). "Reason tells us that psychotherapists and patients share a unique relationship, in which the ability to communicate freely without the fear of public disclosure is the key to successful treatment." at 1355-1356. As to experience, the court observed that all 50 States have adopted some form of the psychotherapist-patient privilege. at 1356. The court attached particular significance to the fact that Illinois law expressly extends such a privilege to social workers like Karen Beyer. 4 at 1357. The court also noted that, with one exception, the federal decisions rejecting the privilege were more than five years old and that the "need and demand for counseling services has skyrocketed during the past several...

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