Hostile Work Environment Plaintiff May Refrain, For Now, From Producing Medical Discovery Relating to Emotional Distress Damages

In Argoti v. Equinox Holdings, Inc., No. 152903/2019, 2021 WL 2480058 (N.Y. Sup Ct, New York County June 17, 2021) – an employment discrimination / hostile work environment case –  the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to compel information regarding plaintiff’s medical treatment, which they contend was relevant to plaintiff’s claim for emotional distress damages.

In sum, Plaintiff asserted that defendants terminated her because of her disability and her status as a victim of domestic violence, in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law.

Defendants sought the following discovery:

(1) complete answers to interrogatories four and five of their First Set of Interrogatories (interrogatory four seeks the identity of all hospitals and other health care professionals from whom plaintiff sought and/or received therapy or treatment for any mental, emotional, or physical condition from January 1, 2015 to the present; interrogatory five seeks information about any hospital or health care facility to which plaintiff was admitted as of January 1, 2015 to the present);

(2) complete responses and documents responsive to document requests seven and eight of their First Request for the Production of Documents (these seek documents related to interrogatories four and five, above); and

(3) fully executed authorizations for plaintiff’s medical and psychotherapy records from January 1, 2015 to the present.

Specifically, defendants contend that since plaintiff seeks damages “for emotional pain and suffering and mental distress caused by termination of her employment,” she placed her physical and/or mental state in issue and waived any privilege for the information.

Plaintiff responded

that the information sought by defendants is irrelevant as this an employment discrimination case, not a personal injury case, and she has not alleged that defendants caused her physical or psychological injuries or that she sought medical or psychological treatment for such injuries. Rather, she has alleged “garden variety emotional pain and suffering,” such as shame, embarrassment, inconvenience, and a violation of her civil rights. Nor has she alleged that defendants caused her physical harm, and therefore she has not waived her privilege related to her physical condition. Moreover, whether she has a “disability” is irrelevant as the pertinent issue is whether defendants believed she had one and their resulting discrimination of her.

Defendants replied that plaintiff “opened the door to her treatment records by asserting claims of emotional distress,” and proposed that the court issue an order “limiting her claim accordingly and precluding her from offering any evidence which she refuses to produce here.”

Resolving this issue, the court explained:

In James v 1620 Westchester Ave. LLC, the Court held that plaintiff’s allegations of general anxiety and mental anguish from the injuries she allegedly suffered in her accident did not place her entire mental and physical health in issue. (147 AD3d 575 [1st Dept 2017]). And in Misas v North-Shore Long Is. Jewish Health Sys., a plaintiff’s assertion of “garden-variety” emotional distress did not thereby waive the physician-patient privilege or place her medical condition in issue; such emotional distress is alleged where “the evidence of mental suffering is generally limited to the testimony of the plaintiff, who describes his or her injury in vague or conclusory terms, without relating either the severity or the consequences of the injury. Such claims typically lack extraordinary circumstances and are not supported by any medical corroboration.” (2016 WL 4082718, *4 [SD NY 2016]).

Here, plaintiff denies alleging that defendants’ actions caused her emotional distress or psychological or physical injuries. Nor does she claim that she sought treatment related to such injuries. Rather, plaintiff limits here claim to the type of emotional pain and suffering that does not require treatment, and therefore does not waive the privilege protecting from disclosure her treatment history and records. (See Babbitt v Koeppel Nissan, Inc., 2019 WL 3296984 [ED NY 2019] [denying request for medical records in employment discrimination case, where defendant argued entitlement to information regarding other potential stressors in plaintiff’s life, but plaintiff alleged only garden variety emotional injuries]; cf Williams v New York City Hous. Auth., 22 AD3d 315 [1st Dept 2005], lv denied 61 AD3d 62 [1st Dept 2009] [plaintiff placed emotional condition in issue by alleging that defendants’ discrimination and harassment caused her mental anguish and severe emotional injury]; compare Donovan v New York City Hous. Auth., 178 AD3d 640 [1st Dept 2019] [defendant not entitled to disclosure of all of plaintiff’s hospital and physician records but entitled to certain records, having placed her physical condition in issue by alleging that defendant created hostile work environment that caused her physical distress and resulted in miscarriage]).
*3 To the extent that plaintiff later alleges that she suffered more than garden variety emotional pain and suffering, defendants may renew their motion to compel at that time.

It concluded by noting that if plaintiff later alleges that she suffered more than “garden variety” emotional pain and suffering, defendants would be permitted to renew their motion to compel at that time.

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