Menendez v. State of California

194 Cal. Rptr. 805
Court: Supreme Court of California
Year of Decision: 1992

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 734KB)

Issue

Whether patient-therapist communications lose their privileged status once a patient threatens others in a manner such that the therapist's Tarasoff duties (Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334 [1976]) are triggered and when a therapist-patient relationship is terminated

Index Topics

Confidentiality/Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege; Duty to Warn/Protect

Facts

The Menendez brothers were accused of killing their parents. Prior to trial on the merits, the parties disputed whether certain tapes made by the brothers' psychologist, during psychotherapy sessions, would be admissible. The defendants argued that the material is privileged patient-therapist communication, protected from disclosure. The California Court of Appeal held the material was not privileged. A portion of the material was deemed outside the scope of privilege pursuant to California Evidence Code, the so-called dangerous patient exception to otherwise privileged information. Another portion of the material was deemed not privileged since the court concluded the communication between the psychologist and the brothers occurred during sessions held not for the purpose of therapy. The issue was accepted for review by the California Supreme Court.

APA's Position

APA's amicus brief argued that: (1) the court of appeals construed too broadly the dangerous patient exception to the general confidentiality of psychotherapist-patient communications; (2) exceptions to the evidentiary privilege protecting psychotherapist-patient communications should be construed narrowly; (3) People v. Wharton, 53 Cal. 3d 522, 280 Cal. Rptr. 631 (1991) properly limited the dangerous patient exception to the therapist's actual warnings to third parties and statements that triggered such warnings; (4) unnecessary expansion of the exception would harm many non-dangerous patients and the public; and (5) the court of appeals erred in holding that the patient-therapist relationship terminated as soon as Dr. Oziel felt threatened since (a) patients' threats against therapists are relatively common and do not always foreclose successful therapy, (b) the court of appeal's ruling would lead to absurd and dangerous results, (c) whether a patient-therapist relationship exists depends on the reasonable expectations of the patient, and (d) a rule that focuses on the reasonable expectations of the patient is practical.

Results

The California Supreme Court held that two of the four sessions at issue were admissible under the dangerous patient exception, but the other two were inadmissible because they were privileged communication. The court adopted, almost completely, the arguments set forth in the APA brief.