Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion
The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company (the Railroad) petitioned the Supreme Court of Missouri for mandamus relief from a protective order entered by the trial court, which barred discovery of an employee’s psychiatric treatment records in that employee’s underlying personal injury action against the Railroad. The Supreme Court of Missouri granted the Railroad a permanent writ based on the fact that the trial court abused its discretion in holding that discovery of a psychiatrist’s records can be wholly excluded when the plaintiff only claims physical rather than psychological injury. The court held that the discovery sought was reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence on the subject of the causation of the plaintiff’s injuries.
I. Facts and Holding
Michael Patton, an employee of the Railroad, filed a two-count personal injury action against it in 2004. He alleged that the Railroad negligently required him to perform heavy manual labor in extreme heat, and that because of this, he lost consciousness, fell, and sustained injuries to his head, shoulder, and neck. He claimed that the injury to his head caused him to experience “reoccurring seizures and/or fainting spells.” Mr. Patton also alleged that the Railroad negligently failed to provide a reasonably safe workplace when it allowed other employees to fill Mr. Patton’s vehicle with trash as a prank. He claimed that upon discovering this prank, he became so upset that he lost consciousness and fell to the ground, causing further injury to his head and neck, leading to additional reoccurring seizures and fainting spells.
The Railroad argued that its negligence did not cause Mr. Patton’s injuries and that his reoccurring losses of consciousness and seizures were instead brought about by his abuse of, or withdrawal from, prescription medications. The Railroad bolstered its argument with portions of Mr. Patton’s medical records, which it collected through discovery. Those records showed that before the first falling incident, a psychiatrist and another physician were each unknowingly prescribing controlled substances to Mr. Patton which presumably posed some danger when used together. When they learned of each other’s prescriptions, the physician stopped prescribing medications to Mr. Patton and the psychiatrist reduced his prescriptions. The Railroad contended that this abrupt decrease in medications caused Mr. Patton’s loss of consciousness because at least one of the reduced prescriptions had anticonvulsive properties.
The Railroad also learned through discovery that after Mr. Patton’s prescriptions were reduced, he made dozens of visits to emergency rooms in an effort to obtain more of those medications. Mr. Patton began seeing a new psychiatrist for depression and anxiety, and he was prescribed medicine before, during, and after the prank incident. In order to strengthen its defense that Mr. Patton’s injuries were caused by prescription drug abuse rather than excessive heat or other unsafe conditions, the Railroad sought discovery of records held by the second treating psychiatrist. It asserted that those records were reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence relevant to the “nature and cause of [Mr. Patton’s] condition and the cause of his fainting and/or seizures,” and so subpoenaed “any and all medical records, reports, & other medical documents & billing . . . which relate to treatment rendered to Michael T. Patton.” In response, Mr. Patton filed a motion to quash the subpoena and requested a protective order.
The trial court denied discovery and granted the protective order, explaining that reviewing those records for evidence relevant to causation “strikes the court as an attempt to obtain through the back door psychiatric records that Defendant was denied at the front door.” Judge Neill stated that the Railroad “ha[d] already obtained all of [Mr. Patton’s] medical records related to the injuries alleged in the petition, which are physical, not psychiatric. [Mr. Patton’s] psychiatric records . . . are not relevant to those injuries and are not discoverable.” Thus, the Railroad sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court of Missouri: (1) ordering the trial court to deny Mr. Patton’s motion for protective order; (2) allowing the Railroad to depose the psychiatrist’s custodian of records; and (3) ordering Mr. Patton to produce those records. The court issued a preliminary writ, then convened en banc to assess whether the writ should be made permanent.
First, the court affirmed that Missouri’s discovery rules allow parties to “obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or to the claim or defense of any other party.” The majority opinion found that the trial court abused its discretion by denying discovery of the psychiatrist’s records in this case based on the sole reason it stated in more than one order. In the trial court’s order denying a rehearing on its disallowance of this discovery, it explicitly stated that Mr. Patton’s “mental and psychological condition is not relevant to the damages sought by Plaintiff. That is the position consistently taken by this Court throughout discovery.” The trial court further stated in that order that “Defendant has already obtained all of [Mr. Patton’s] medical records related to the injuries alleged in the petition, which are physical, not psychiatric. [Mr. Patton’s] psychiatric records . . . are not relevant to those injuries and are not discoverable.” Finally, in granting Mr. Patton’s motion for a protective order, the court “reiterate[d] that Plaintiff’s mental/psychological condition is not relevant to the damages claimed by Plaintiff.”
The Supreme Court of Missouri agreed with the trial court that when a plaintiff has not claimed psychological injury beyond “garden variety” emotional distress, psychiatric records are not discoverable in relation to the issue of damages because in such cases a plaintiff’s “particular past or present mental condition ... is not in controversy.” The court further emphasized that a plaintiff does not controvert his or her psychological state simply by alleging physical injury. However, the court found that whether medical records are subject to discovery does not depend solely on the kind of doctor who holds the records, and the fact that Mr. Patton does not allege psychological damage does not mean that the records in question are relevant to another issue. The court held that the pertinent inquiry is whether the requested material “appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” If so, the records are discoverable no matter who has possession of them, as long as no privilege applies. The court found that while the records sought by the Railroad may not relate to Mr. Patton’s physical injuries, the Railroad argued they are relevant to the issue of causation, and had supported its argument with other medical records and expert witnesses.
The court explained that a contention that otherwise undiscoverable records might lead to the discovery of admissible evidence would not justify a “fishing expedition” into those records, nor could it be used as an attempt to skirt the restriction on discovery of psychiatric records of plaintiffs who do not claim psychological injury, nor to embarrass such plaintiffs or to influence the jury. The court affirmed that trial courts must continue to assess discovery requests under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 56.01. However, the court held that a trial court abuses its discretion when, as here, it entirely bars such discovery merely on the belief that no psychiatrist’s record could be relevant or discoverable without allegations of psychiatric damage. The court found that in this case, the Railroad met its burden of showing that it has reason to believe that discovery of these records was reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence relating to the issue of causation.
Such records, the court explained, can be shielded from potential abuse by a well-calculated protective order entered by a trial court in its discretion. For instance, an order can make discovery dependent on the trial court’s finding, after in camera review, that the records do contain information reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence on causation; an order can limit the use or admissibility of any records found relevant; or an order can specify confidential matters. Finally, the court specified that in its holding, it did not determine the admissibility of the evidence the Railroad seeks to discover, nor did it resolve whether the discovery may be inappropriate or limited on other grounds. Instead, the court emphasized that the trial court should consider on remand whether discovery of some or all of these records is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence on causation or other important issues.
In Justice Zel M. Fischer’s dissenting opinion, he argued that the principal opinion “attribute[d] a very limited motive to the trial court for denial of the discovery request.” Since the trial court has broad discretion in controlling discovery, the Supreme Court of Missouri should only intervene when “it deems the trial court to have abused its discretion to the point that a decision ‘is clearly against the logic of the circumstances, is arbitrary and unreasonable, and indicates a lack of careful consideration.’” He stated that the court should only grant extraordinary writs in extraordinary situations, and that the trial court’s decision in this case was not an abuse of discretion.
In Judge Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer’s dissenting opinion, she expressed her concern that the majority opinion granted a writ of mandamus on a discovery matter based on only one reason the trial court gave in the grant of its protective order — that the Railroad had already received all the records related to the actual injuries in the petition. She stated that a reviewing court should affirm the trial court’s decision on any basis that is correct, even if the reviewing court might have ruled on a different basis. Judge Rahmeyer observed that in light of the fact that the second psychiatrist did not treat Mr. Patton until after the initial injury, the allegation by the Railroad that there might be something in those records relevant to causation was in an overbroad interrogatory, and that discovery was already extensive, she would have found that the trial court’s ruling was neither arbitrary, unreasonable, nor lacking in careful consideration. She would therefore have found no abuse of discretion in the grant of the protective order and would have denied the writ.
II. Legal Background
At issue in this case were the relevant rules regarding the scope of discovery and protective orders in Missouri, as well as the legal precedent establishing when a party may petition for mandamus and the grounds on which a writ may be granted.
Missouri Supreme Court Rule 56.01 establishes the general provisions governing discovery, including its scope. It states that “[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or to the claim or defense of any other party.” Further, the rule provides that “[i]t is not ground for objection that the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. The party seeking discovery shall bear the burden of establishing relevance.”
Protective orders are also addressed in Rule 56.01. The person from whom discovery is sought can request that the court issue a protective order upon a showing of good cause. The court can issue such an order in its discretion if justice requires it to protect someone from “annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.”
The Supreme Court of Missouri has recognized that a litigant seeking mandamus relief from a trial court’s decision on discovery “must allege and prove that he has a clear, unequivocal specific right to a thing claimed,” because otherwise “[t]rial courts have broad discretion in administering rules of discovery, which this [c]ourt will not disturb absent an abuse of discretion.” Additionally, a trial court has abused its discretion when a decision “is clearly against the logic of the circumstances, is arbitrary and unreasonable, and indicates a lack of careful consideration.”
Finally, the majority discussed the court’s decision in State ex rel. Dean v. Cunningham. In that case, an employee brought an action against her employer for sex discrimination and sexual harassment in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act, and sought damages for loss of income and emotional distress. The trial court had granted the employer’s motion to compel discovery of all of the employee’s mental health records, and had ordered her to execute authorizations for production of those records. The employee petitioned the Supreme Court of Missouri for a writ of prohibition, which it granted. It held that a plaintiff who has not alleged psychological injury beyond “garden variety” emotional distress has not placed his or her mental condition in controversy such that his or her psychiatric records are therefore subject to discovery in connection with damages.
The dissenting opinions in this case expressed caution with issuing extraordinary writs in general, and surmised other reasons why the trial court may have legitimately denied discovery within its discretion. However, no other reasons were clearly before the Supreme Court of Missouri on appeal. Justice Laura Denvir Stith, for the majority, noted that “[t]o the extent that the dissenting opinions are based on the belief that this [c]ourt cannot know why the trial court ruled as it did, or on the belief that it so ruled simply because the requested discovery was too broad, they are in error.” The majority noted that here, “the basis of the entry of the order [denying discovery] was the court’s stated belief that records held by a psychiatrist could not be relevant to this case in which physical injury is alleged. That is the only issue before this [c]ourt on this appeal, and it provides the basis of the [c]ourt’s decision.” Addressing the dissenting opinion of Judge Rahmeyer in particular, the majority further explained that any abusive discovery techniques or the need protect Mr. Patton could have been dealt with by an appropriate protective order. Thus, the court would not constructively attribute other possible bases for denying discovery to the trial court.
Further, the majority emphasized through this case that courts must assess all elements of a claim when deciding if information is discoverable, not just the issue of damages. While the dissent may be correct that extraordinary writs should only be issued for extraordinary reasons, the majority must have seen this as a point worth making.
 No. SC91706 (Mo. Dec. 20, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=51375. The West reporter citation is State ex rel. BNSF Ry. Co. v. Neill, 356 S.W.3d 169 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 4.
 Id. at 4-5.
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 5-6 (citing Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 56.01(b)(1)).
 Id. at 7.
 Id., citing State ex rel. Dean v. Cunningham, 182 S.W.3d 561, 567-68 (Mo. 2006) (en banc).
 Id. at 7-8.
 Id. at 8.
 Id. (citing Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 56.01(b)(1)).
 Id. at 8-9.
 Id. at 10 (citing Dean, 182 S.W.3d at 568).
 Id. at 11.
 Id. at 11-12.
 Id. at 12.
 Id. at 14 (Fischer, J., dissenting).
 Id. at 13 (Fischer, J., dissenting) (citing State ex rel. Ford Motor Co. v. Messina, 71 S.W.3d 602, 607 (Mo. 2002) (en banc)).
 Id. at 14. (Fischer, J., dissenting)
 Id. at 15. (Rahmeyer, Sp.J., dissenting)
 Id. (Rahmeyer, Sp.J., dissenting) (citing Kubley v. Brooks, 141 S.W.3d 21, 27 n. 5 (Mo. 2004) (en banc); Fix v. Fix, 847 S.W.2d 762, 766 (Mo. 1993) (en banc); Edgar v. Fitzpatrick, 377 S.W.2d 314, 318 (Mo. 1964) (en banc)).
 Id. at 18-19. (Rahmeyer, Sp.J., dissenting)
 Id. at 19. (Rahmeyer, Sp.J., dissenting)
 Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 56.01(b)(1).
 Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 56.01(c).
 Id. (The court can issue an order “including one or more of the following: (1) that the discovery not be had; (2) that the discovery may be had only on specified terms and conditions, including a designation of the time or place; (3) that the discovery may be had only by a method of discovery other than that selected by the party seeking discovery; (4) that certain matters not be inquired into, or that the scope of the discovery be limited to certain matters; (5) that discovery be conducted with no one present except persons designated by the court; (6) that a deposition after being sealed be opened only by order of the court. . .”).
 Furlong Cos., Inc. v. City of Kansas City, 189 S.W.3d 157, 166 (Mo. 2006) (en banc).
 State ex rel. Delmar Gardens N. Operating, LLC v. Gaertner, 239 S.W.3d 608, 610 (Mo. 2007) (en banc).
 State ex rel. Ford Motor Co. v. Messina, 71 S.W.3d 602, 607 (Mo. 2002) (en banc).
 182 S.W.3d 561 (Mo. 2006) (en banc).
 Id. at 567-68 (Mo. 2006) (en banc). (“[E]vidence of [a plaintiff’s] medically or psychologically diagnosable mental or physical condition is irrelevant to the question of whether she suffered ‘garden variety’ emotional distress . . .”).
 Id. at 11-12 n.3.
 Id. at 7 n.1.
 Id. at 11-12 n.3.