Are Medical Records Allowed in PFA Cases?

According to the Philadelphia Police Department, roughly one-third of adult women have been a victim of physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking committed by a current or past partner to an intimate relationship. These acts of domestic violence or abuse impact more than 42 million women in the U.S. Men are also victims of domestic violence but to a much lesser extent.

Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order

Those who are victims of abuse may seek a court-ordered PFA. These are civil orders that prohibit the alleged abuser from continuing these types of behavior. A victim must complete a petition for a judge to consider implementing a PFA.

What is Abuse?

Pennsylvania statute defines abuse as being actions that are committed intentionally (knowingly). It may involve attempting to or causing bodily harm. It may involve an act of sexual assault or the physical or sexual abuse of a minor. Acts of stalking or falsely imprisoning someone are also forms of abuse. Verbal altercations or acts that result in mental or emotional harm are not considered as abuse.

Who May Petition for a PFA?

A petitioner must be either 18 years of age or have a parent or guardian that files on their behalf. The abuser may be a parent, child, or other family or household member. The abuser may be a former or current sexual partner. If these criteria are not met, the victim is unable to file for a PFA and instead should file criminal charges.

Where Can a PFA Be Filed?

A PFA may be filed in the county that you live, the county that the abuser lives or where the alleged abuse occurred. During business hours in Philadelphia, a PFA may be filed at either of these locations:

Family Court
Domestic Violence Unit
1501 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 686-3512

Criminal Justice Center
1301 Filbert Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 686-7000

After business hours a petitioner should contact their local police department. Agencies of law enforcement can contact a judge that is on-call for potential implementation of an emergency (temporary) PFA. The alleged abuser will be served with a copy of the PFA and a hearing is scheduled within 10 business days.

Understanding Medical Records

Your medical records are notes that are made by a medical provider regarding your visit. For example, if you have a doctor visit or you received care in a hospital. Medical records are considered to be confidential and are subject to privacy laws established by the federal government.

Medical records may include statements that discuss a patient's medical history, diagnosis, treatment, and more. They may include details such as symptoms, pain, and testing. These records are now maintained in electronic health record systems.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains that HIPAA allows patients a right to “inspect, review, and receive a copy of medical records and billing records.” A patient may also allow for a personal representative to access their records. Medical providers may share your records with other practitioners that are involved in your care. Otherwise, providers are to keep these records private.

Medical providers are prohibited from denying you access to your records for failing to pay for the services provided. A provider may charge a reasonable fee for administrative costs such as for mailing or copying expenses. Notes that are taken in counseling or psychotherapy sessions by the professional are not deemed as medical records.

Importance of Medical Evidence

Medical evidence such as that suggesting a petitioner was a victim of bodily injury or sexual assault can be very compelling. This evidence may be in the form of written examination results or photographs. Is this personal and confidential information able to be presented or disclosed in a PFA hearing or other proceedings?

Court Orders and Subpoenas Regarding Medical Records

HIPAA provisions state that medical providers may be court-ordered to share medical records. This applies to only information specified in the order. A subpoena is a request from a clerk of court or an attorney for a case. A provider may disclose medical records when a subpoena complies with the Privacy Rule. This involves notifying the patient of the request to see if they have any objection.

Philadelphia's Local Rules of Admissibility

The local court rules in Philadelphia contain some of the following provisions that relate to medical evidence:

  • Records and documentation from a hospital may be permitted
  • Merely presenting a discharge summary may be insufficient; therefore, the full medical record should be used
  • Billing statements and medical reports are also permitted as evidence
  • Personal details such as addresses, social security numbers, and phone numbers may be “blacked out”
  • Pictures may be introduced, such as to illustrate injuries or property damage

Privileged Interactions

Pennsylvania's Constitution (§5929) addresses the confidentiality or “privilege” between a doctor and patient. In civil matters, a physician is prohibited from revealing detailed information that was obtained while working with a patient in a professional capacity. This applies unless the patient provides consent. Patient consent is not necessary for confirming the date(s) of treatment.

PFA Hearing Process and Evidence

At the hearing, the petitioner must prove the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence standard. This is a lesser standard than beyond a reasonable doubt that applies to criminal matters. The parties involved should have legal representation. The petitioner may present the testimony on their behalf. The judge can consider information regarding other incidents of abuse within the last five years.

The authenticity of pictures that are not part of a medical record may be challenged. Parties who wish to present pictures may need someone else to be present at the hearing to testify. Any written communications such as text messages or emails or recorded voice messages may be used as evidence.

Medical records must also be “authenticated by the custodian or another qualified witness.” The practitioner who created the medical record need not be the witness. The “custodian” may be a clerk or staff member from the office or hospital. The practitioner must be present when medical records containing opinions will be used to allow for cross-examination.

Experienced Legal Representation for Protection From Abuse Hearings

PFA hearings conducted in Philadelphia courts are subject to federal privacy laws, state statutes and local court rules. Parties involved in these hearings should retain an attorney that is familiar with this area of legal practice. For a consultation, contact Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm at (215) 535-5353.

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