Law Note: Social Workers and Subpoenas

by: Carolyn I. Polowy, JD, Sherri Morgan, MSW, JD, Amber Khan, JD and Joel Gilbertson, Law Clerk
First edition published by LDF: January 1997
© 2011 National Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved.
Pages: 52
Endnotes: 84
Appendix A: NASW Code of Ethics, § 1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality
Appendix B: State Subpoena Statutes (50-state review)
Appendix C: United States Code Annotated, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 45 -- Subpoenas


Social workers are becoming involved in clients’ lawsuits more frequently than they would like. Domestic relations matters, drunken driving accidents, and sexual harassment or other work-related problems can lead to litigation for clients who are in family counseling, therapy, or employee assistance programs. In addition, social workers are required to report acts or suspicions of child or elder abuse and may have to testify about these reports. Further, troubled clients may be involved in legal proceedings such as child custody disputes, workers’ compensation hearings, civil damage suits, or criminal matters including domestic violence and violation of probation orders.

These and similar matters may result in litigation involving social workers and subpoenas for their records. The type of subpoena, whether it must be obeyed, whether the client has provided a valid written release of information, and whether original records must be provided are some of the issues that must be addressed. The first step in sorting out how to treat a subpoena is to understand the concepts and rules on which a subpoena is based. Armed with some information about the purpose of a subpoena and the legal and ethical rules that generally apply, social workers can analyze how to respond and also can formulate legal questions for consultation with an attorney.

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