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Meridian Health Services Corp. v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Indiana

September 14, 2016

Meridian Health Services Corporation, Appellant-Intervenor,
Thomas Martin Bell, Appellee-Respondent.

         Appeal from the St. Joseph Superior Court Trial Court Cause No. 71D05-1002-DR-94 The Honorable Jenny Pitts Manier, Judge

          Attorneys for Appellant David J. Karnes Michael G. Foley Dennis, Wenger & Abrell P.C. Muncie, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellee Gregory K. Blanford The Blanford Law Office South Bend, Indiana

          Robb, Judge.

         Case Summary and Issue

         [¶1] Meridian Health Services Corporation ("Meridian") appeals the trial court's order finding it in contempt of court for failure to comply with a subpoena duces tecum and appear at a deposition and awarding attorney's fees as a sanction pursuant to Indiana Trial Rules 26(C) and 37(A)(4). Concluding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding Meridian in contempt and ordering it to pay attorney's fees, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] In 2011, the trial court entered a decree dissolving the marriage of Thomas Bell ("Father") and Angela Bell ("Mother"). The decree incorporated the parties' agreement to share joint legal custody of their child, K.B., with Mother having primary physical custody. Father thereafter filed several motions to modify parenting time. Ultimately, Mother and Father agreed to an alternate parenting schedule, which the trial court approved on June 12, 2014. In the interim, Mother began taking K.B. to see a therapist at Meridian.

         [¶3] In March 2015, Father's attorney contacted Meridian requesting K.B.'s therapy records in reference to an ongoing domestic relations matter. Meridian did not release K.B.'s records at that time, indicating Father would need to submit a signed medical release form. Prior to receiving Father's release form, Meridian sought and received from K.B.'s physician a letter stating it was "medically necessary that the records of [K.B.'s] therapy sessions not be released to her parents." Corrected Appellant's Appendix at 33 (emphasis in original). The letter dated April 2 explained,

Much of [K.B.]'s anxiety is related to stress within the family. Because [K.B.] needs to be able to openly talk with her therapist, she needs to be assured that her words cannot be used against her . . . . It is medically very important that [K.B.] continue in counseling and that she be confident in the safety of her relationship with her therapist. Any release of these records to [her] parent[s] could jeopardize her care and her mental and physical health.


         [¶4] Meridian received Father's release form on May 14. Rather than release K.B.'s records, Meridian responded on May 15 with a letter from its counsel noting it had received a letter from K.B.'s physician stating "it is not in the best interests of [K.B.] to have her records released to her parents." Id. at 31. Meridian indicated it would therefore release the records only upon the issuance of a court order pursuant to the procedures set forth in Indiana Code chapter 16-39-3:

I am sure that you are aware of the strict provisions within both state and federal law for the disclosure of a patient's mental health records especially in situations where the patient has not consented. In addition, Indiana law also provides for situations where the patient should not even be permitted disclosure of their own mental health records when it . . . would be detrimental to the physical and mental health of the patient. See Ind. Code § 16-39-2-4. As such, we believe this physician letter properly invokes the language within [section] 16-39-2-4 and would restrict access to the patient based upon the advice and concerns of the patient's physician that disclosure would be detrimental to the physical or mental health of the patient. Since the Indiana Code does not provide any independent right to the parents of minor children to access their [children's] mental health records other than the ability to "exercise the patient's rights on the patient's behalf" under Indiana Code Section 16-39-2-9, we believe the restrictions in Section 16-39-2-4 concerning disclosure when it would be detrimental to the physical and mental health of the patient apply to a parent's request on behalf of the minor patient . . . . As such, it is my opinion that these records should not be released to the parents pursuant to any executed Medical Release or Authorization for Disclosures, but will be released only upon the issuance of a court order pursuant to the procedures set forth under Indiana Code [chapter 16-39-3] for disclosure without consent of the patient.

Id. at 31-32. Around the same time, Mother filed a petition to suspend Father's parenting time, alleging Father emotionally abuses K.B. The trial court modified Father's parenting time to telephone contact only pending an evidentiary hearing set for July 21, 2015.

         [¶5] In preparation for that hearing, Father served a notice of deposition on K.B.'s therapist, a subpoena duces tecum for K.B.'s therapist to produce her "complete file in regards to [K.B.]" at the deposition, and a declaration of Father's compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA"). Id. at 27-30. Meridian received the notice on July 9; the deposition was scheduled for July 16. On July 13, Meridian filed a motion to quash and motion for protective order, arguing state and federal law prohibited Meridian from disclosing the information to Father without a court order. The court took no action on the motion to quash prior to the scheduled deposition. After K.B.'s therapist failed to appear for her deposition on July 16, Father filed a motion for rule to show cause why K.B.'s therapist should not be held in contempt, and the trial court scheduled a hearing on both parties' motions.

         [¶6] K.B.'s physician and her therapist both testified at the hearing held on September 8. K.B.'s physician examined K.B. on two or three occasions prior to being contacted by Meridian and writing the letter in April 2015, although she could not say exactly when. As for the letter itself,

Q [W]hat was the reason for writing this letter?
A I had been contacted by Meridian that they-that [K.B.'s] records were being requested. And it is our position that the - what is said in a therapy session or in a doctor's session is not releasable . . . .
The Court: When you say "our position" do you-can you clarify what "our" means?
[Physician:] [I]t's the standard position of pediatricians.
* * *
Q [W]hat was the reasoning behind writing this letter?
A [T]here is stress between the parents. And whenever we see stress and conflict between the parents, anything that puts the child or the child's words between the parents is detrimental to the child. So the fact that there is conflict between the parents would mean that the child's words should be protected so that the child is not put in between in the conflict of those parents.
** *
Q Did you feel like this child would not be able to continue in therapy if she was required to have these records released?
A Therapy would at least-continued therapy-therapy would at least be put in jeopardy.
** *
Q And did you reflect that it was in your medical professional opinion very important that this child continue in counseling?
A Yes.

Transcript at 40, 44-45. Although K.B.'s physician mentioned protective orders issued against Father as an additional concern, she admitted she lacked personal knowledge of any such orders:

[Meridian's Attorney] [D]o you know of anything outside of your HIPAA restrictions that would make you believe that the stressors in this situation were greater than any normal situation?
A Yes. . . . The fact that we are aware of restraining orders having been taken out.
The Court: Who's "we?"
A Our office.
** *
Q What is your understanding of the restraining orders that you're aware of?
A That there are restraining orders against the father with various ...

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