In at least the third case we have seen in the past few weeks, the Texas Supreme Court has paused proceedings in a case in which a trial court has ordered a party to respond to discovery in a way that implicates federal constitutional or statutory rights.

In re Blake Joel Robbins (No. 24-0145; stay issued March 22, 2024) arose from a divorce case. The wife sought production of any records relating to the husband’s treatment for substance abuse. The husband objected, asserting that federal law imposes certain requirements on the production of such information that were not followed. The trial court overruled the objection and ordered production. The Dallas Court of Appeals denied mandamus relief. The husband filed a petition for writ of mandamus with SCOTX.

According to the relator’s petition, the trial court simply ignored or dismissed the federal requirements for producing substance abuse records that are more stringent than those for other protected health information under HIPAA. The applicable regulations authorize a court to order production in three instances: (1) disclosure is necessary to protect against an existing threat to life or of serious bodily injury; (2) disclosure is necessary in connection with investigation or prosecution of an extremely serious crime; or (3) the patient offers testimony or other information pertaining to the content of confidential communications contained in the record. The purpose of these strict, mandatory limitations is to encourage people to seek substance abuse treatment without fear of disclosure except under tightly circumscribed circumstances. Even if the party seeking the records shows that it meets one of the conditions, the trial court may order production only if it finds that there is no other means of obtaining the information and that the public interest in and need for the disclosure outweigh the potential injury to the patient, the patient-physician relationship, and the treatment services. In order to make that determination, moreover, the trial court must examine the records in camera.

The relator asserts that the trial court made none of the required findings and did not examine the records in camera. And even if it had, the regulations still require the court to limit disclosure solely to the parts of the record essential to the objective of the order and to protect the disclosed information through a protective or sealing order. Clearly, the trial court didn’t do that, either, instead ordering the relator to turn over all the records. The wife asserted that a prior order in the case authorized discovery of HIPAA-covered information, and that this request merely came under that order. But, as noted above, the relator argues that the more stringent federal requirements separate from HIPAA apply here.

Taking the allegations in the relator’s petition as true, this case would appear to raise serious questions regarding the trial court’s conduct of the case. We realize that there is more to the story that needs to be told in the wife’s response to the petition, but it seems odd that the trial court simply brushed off the relator’s argument without any attempt whatever to make a good cause order in compliance with the regulations. Maybe the court knows something that we don’t, but if one of the parties to a divorce is undergoing substance abuse treatment while the litigation is ongoing, one would think a court might be wary of ordering production of records without at least looking at them first.

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