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Breunlin v. Village of Oak Park

April 29, 2008

CYNTHIA BREUNLIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
VILLAGE OF OAK PARK, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Nan R. Nolan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Cynthia Breunlin brings this action against her former employer, the Village of Oak Park (the "Village"), alleging that she was terminated in retaliation for taking a leave of absence in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). For the reasons stated below, the Village's Motion to Compel [17] is denied.

I. Background

Breunlin began her employment with the Village as a Housing Programs Manager in 1997. In March of 2007, Breunlin took a leave of absence pursuant to the FMLA for major depression with generalized anxiety disorder. Prior to Breunlin's leave of absence, the Village was in the process of investigating allegations of improper activity involving the Village's Single Family Housing Rehabilitation Program (the "Single Family Program") which Breunlin was responsible for managing. After the approval of her psychiatrist, Breunlin returned to work. On August 1, 2007, Breunlin was terminated. Breunlin claims that she was terminated in retaliation for exercising her rights under the FMLA. The Village denies that it retaliated against Breunlin. It says Breunlin was terminated for a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason, namely the problems in the Single Family Program which she managed.

The Village complains that Breunlin has failed to produce any documents or answer deposition questions related to the medical condition that triggered her need for FMLA leave. The Village seeks an order compelling Breunlin to answer all deposition questions regarding the medical condition that triggered her request for medical leave under the FMLA, produce all medical records in her possession related to that condition, and authorize the medical providers who diagnosed and/or treated her condition to produce her medical records. Breunlin opposes the Village's motion to compel on the grounds that the information sought is protected from disclosure by the psychotherapist-patient privilege and is irrelevant to her FMLA retaliation claim.

II. Discussion

A party may "obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the claim or defense of any party." Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). Magistrate judges are granted broad discretion in addressing and resolving discovery disputes. Weeks v. Samsung Heavey Indus., Co., Ltd., 126 F.3d 926, 943 (7th Cir. 1997). Because the analysis of whether Breunlin waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege by placing her mental condition at issue dovetails with the relevancy question, Breunlin's relevancy objection is appropriately considered in the Court's at-issue waiver analysis.

Federal common law recognizes a psychotherapist-patient privilege. In Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1, 15 (1996), the United Supreme Court held that "confidential communications between a licensed psychotherapist and her patients in the course of diagnosis or treatment are protected from compelled disclosure under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence." The Jaffe court also noted that "[l]ike other testimonial privileges, the patient may of course waive the protection." Id. at 16 n.14. The Court did not define the contours of the psychotherapist-patient privilege or address when or how it can be waived. Id. at 18.

"If a plaintiff by seeking damages for emotional distress places his or her psychological state in issue, the defendant is entitled to discover any records of that state." Doe v. Oberweis Diary, 456 F.3d 704, 718 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Santelli v. Electro-Motive, 188 F.R.D. 306, 308 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 19, 1999) (stating "[o]ne way a privilege holder can waive the privilege is by affirmatively putting the privileged communications directly at issue in a lawsuit."). As Judge Kennelly observed in Santelli, "[a] party cannot inject his or her psychological treatment, conditions, or symptoms into a case and expect to be able to prevent discovery of information relevant to those issues." Santelli, 188 F.R.D. at 309.

The issue in Santelli was "whether a Title VII plaintiff puts privileged communications with her psychotherapist at issue, and thus waives her privilege, by seeking to recover damages for emotional distress." Santelli, 188 F.R.D. at 308. The Santelli court held that the plaintiff had successfully avoided waiver of her psychotherapist-patient privilege by limiting the scope of her emotional distress claim to "compensation for humiliation, embarrassment, and other similar emotions." Id. at 309. At trial, the Santelli plaintiff was precluded from introducing the fact or details of her treatment, her symptoms or conditions that she suffered, and evidence regarding a medical or psychological disorder. Id. She was allowed to testify "only that she felt humiliated, embarrassed, angry or upset because of the alleged discrimination." Id. This Court has previously followed the Santelli distinction. SeeSaket v. American Airlines, 2003 WL 685385, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 28, 2003).

Breunlin's complaint alleges one claim: retaliation in violation of the FMLA. She asserts as part of her damages in this case that she suffered "extreme mental anguish" and "painful embarrassment among her friends and co-workers" as a result of the Village's actions. Cmplt. ¶ 26. Breunlin says she is seeking compensatory damages that include "general anxiety and stress." There is no evidence in the record that Breunlin has received psychiatric treatment for the mental anguish allegedly caused by the Village's termination. Breunlin does not intend to call her treating physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or an expert witness to advance her claim for mental anguish. Breunlin also says that she will not inject into the case either the fact of her treatment or any symptoms or conditions that she may have experienced for the purposes of proving her damages. Pl's Resp. at 6. Given Breunlin's representations, the Court finds that she has agreed to the Santelli limitations and she has not put her mental state at issue in this case by seeking damages for mental anguish and embarrassment.*fn1

The Village's main argument in support of its motion is that Breunlin has put her medical condition at issue and waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege "by alleging that the only reason she was terminated was in retaliation for taking medical leave for stress-related depression." Def's Reply at 4. According to the Village, "Breunlin's stress-related depression and the cause(s) of her condition are at the very heart of this case." Id.*fn2

The Village explains that as a result of its investigation of the Single Family Program which Breunlin managed, the Village Manager determined that Breunlin's lack of oversight and mismanagement of the department had contributed substantially to the problems in the program. The Village says it terminated Breunlin's employment not because she took FMLA leave but rather because the Village Manager no longer had confidence in her ability to effectively correct the problems in the Single Family Program and manage the program on an ongoing basis. The Village suspects that its investigation of the Single Family Program and "the real possibility that Breunlin would be terminated or face criminal prosecution was the catalyst for her requesting leave." Def's Reply at 4. The Village "believes that Breunlin's medical records will corroborate that Breunlin knew her job was in jeopardy before she took FMLA leave or even had a need to request medical leave, thus supporting the Village's defense that Breunlin's termination was not in retaliation for taking a leave of absence." Def's Reply at 5. The Village further believes that "[i]f Breunlin's condition was indeed caused by the Village's investigation and fear of job loss, this would constitute an admission that she knew the Village's intent at the time she requested leave, which is not only relevant but would defeat her retaliation claim." Def's Resp. to Pl's Sur-Reply at 1. The Village therefore concludes that "the events that led to Breunlin requesting leave, including any information regarding the cause of the condition, are clearly at issue and relevant to this case." Def's Reply at 5.

Breunlin responds that any evidence of a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason should "exist independently from any examination of medical records and the Defendant could not have relied upon the medical records to effect their 'legitimate' reason since they did not ...


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