Ala. Ct. Affirms Order to Return Injured Worker’s Psyche Records

May 8, 2023

Malik Woodard asked his doctor not to look at records of the treatment he received from a psychologist while recovering from crush injuries that happened when a one-ton battery cabinet fell on him while at work.

Dr. Victor Chin obtained the treatment records anyway by asking a medical case manager with the workers’ compensation insurer for Woodard’s employer. When Woodard obtained a court order requiring Chin to return those records or destroy them, Chin appealed.

A divided Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that Chin and his practice, Sportsmed Occupational Specialists, must comply with the court order. In a 6-2 ruling, the high court also rejected a motion by Chin and Sportsmed to invoke Alabama’s medical malpractice law and change the venue of the civil case to the location where the injury occurred.

Dr. Victor Chin

The majority rejected Chin and Sportsmed’s arguments that they need to retain notes that Chin took from the records to defend himself against Woodard’s claims of breach of contract, fraud, invasion of privacy, the tort of outrage and civil conspiracy.

“Although those notes may be relevant to the Sportsmed defendants’ defense, it is not at all clear from the Sportsmed defendants’ petition and reply brief that those notes (and any testimony based on them) are the only evidence that could be presented at trial to show Dr. Chin’s reasons for requesting the psychological records,” the majority opinion says. “Nor is it clear that Dr. Chin’s reasons would be the central factual issue at trial; it appears that other issues, such as whether Woodard consented to Dr. Chin’s obtaining the records, could be equally or more significant.”

Woodard was injured while trying to install the cabinet that crushed him in March 2018. He saw Chin, a pain-management specialist, in October 2019 after undergoing emergency surgery and followup treatment with a psychologist. He signed a medical-records release form that generally authorized other health providers to share medical records with Chin.

During the appointment, Chin asked Woodard for his consent to review the records from the psychologist. Woodard refused, but Chin obtained the records from the case manager anyway.

When Woodard found out, he filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court. Chin and Sportsmed filed a motion seeking to change the venue to Madison Circuit Court, noting that the Alabama Medical Liability Act requires any action alleging damages against a health care provider based on a breach of the standard of care must be brought in the county where the alleged breach occurred.

Woodard filed a motion seeking a protective order prohibiting Chin and Sportsmed from disclosing psychological records in discovery or using them at trial. He asked the court to order Chin and Sportsmed to destroy the records or return them.

The Jefferson County court granted Woodard’s motion and denied the motion by Chin and Sportsmed. The Supreme Court accepted an appeal.

The majority said to invoke the Medical Liability Act, the defendants had two options: They could assert that the record did not support an inference that Chin had no medical reason to request the psychology records, or they could submit affidavit evidence that Chin did have a medical reason.

Chin and Sportsmed did neither. Instead, they argued that a change of venue was appropriate because the alleged harm occurred in the course of medical treatment.

The Supreme Court said it rejected the use of “time-and-place” to invoke the provisions of the Medical Liability Act in a 2006 case, Ex parte Addiction & Mental Health Servs., Inc. The court ruled that the liability act did not apply to a lawsuit filed by a patient whose psychological records were dropped on the floor where they were seen by others because the injury was not medical in nature.

The majority said Chin and Sportsmed also failed to make a convincing argument that they would be unable to defend themselves against Woodard’s lawsuit unless they retained a copy of the psychology records.

Justices Greg Cook and William B. Sellers dissented. Cook said that the evidence clearly showed that Chin requested the records in order to treat Woodard, so the change of venue was appropriate. He said the Circuit Court had not authority to order the return or destruction of records that Chin possessed before a lawsuit was filed.

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