The Court of Appeals recently extended broad protection over communications between a patient and an associate professional counselor. In a wrongful death suit, the Court held that a “grief journal,” which was part of a treatment administered by a licensed associate professional counselor (“LAPC”), was privileged communication and not subject to production during discovery. Gwinnett Hosp. System, Inc. v. Hoover, 785 S.E.2d 918 (Ga. Ct. App. 2016).
Muriel Hoover, plaintiff to the original action, filed a wrongful death claim against Gwinnett Medical Center (“GMC”) after her husband died shortly after being treated by GMC. As part of discovery, GMC requested any diaries or journals that Hoover kept during the treatment of her husband. As a response, Hoover indicated that she was unaware of any such material but reserved the right to supplement. During Hoover’s deposition; however, she testified that she did maintain a “grief journal” as part of her counseling sessions. Hoover refused to supplement her discovery responses stating that the journal was privileged communication between herself and a licensed professional counselor (“LPC”). OCGA § 24-5-501(a)(7). GMC moved to compel the production of the journal for, at a minimum, the Court’s in-camera inspection. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the journal qualified as privileged communication pursuant to OCGA § 24-5-501(a)(7), and GMC’s appeal followed.
GMC argued that Hoover’s journal is not privileged because it was not maintained pursuant to the direction of a LPC. Due to scheduling conflicts, Hoover’s appointments were with an associate professional counselor, who was studying to become licensed, therefore, the journal was not privileged communication. OCGA § 24-5-501(a)(7) protects “communications between a licensed clinical social worker, clinical nurse specialist in psychiatric/mental health, licensed marriage and family therapist, or licensed professional counselor and patient.” OCGA § 24-5-501(a)(7). The parties did not dispute that Hoover’s counseling sessions were with a LAPC and not a LPC. However, even with that admission, the Court was able to draw a connection between Hoover and an LPC.
The Court found that the LPC, while not directly counseling Hoover, was never completely removed from her treatment. The journal was part of a plan developed by both the LPC and LAPC and based on the sessions, the LAPC would discuss further treatment with the LPC, who would then approve or suggest treatment plans. Additionally, the LPC maintained direct supervision over the care and treatment provided by the LAPC. The Court held that the LAPC was an agent of the LPC and that, similar to attorney-client privilege, the privilege extends to communications between an LPC, their agent, and their clients. Id. at 920.
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