Surrender of Medical Records
Opinion rules that a lawyer who advances the cost of obtaining medical records before deciding whether to accept a case may not condition the release of the records to the client upon reimbursement of the cost.
Firm X does a substantial amount of plaintiff's medical malpractice litigation. When a client comes to Firm X initially, it accepts the case only for review, until it determines whether there is sufficient evidence of negligence, causation and damages to justify bringing an action.
In the process of reviewing these cases, Firm X collects and reviews medical records concerning relevant treatment. In many cases, these medical records are extensive and consist of thousands of pages. Hospitals and physicians who provide these records charge for the cost of copying them. When a person has been hospitalized for an extensive period of time, the cost of obtaining the complete medical records, which may be needed for thorough review, can be hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
In many cases, in accordance with Rule 5.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, Firm X has advanced on behalf of the client the cost of obtaining the medical records, while always communicating to the client that he or she remains ultimately liable for this cost.
Firm X declines many of the cases because of a lack of evidence of liability. When Firm X declines a case and has advanced substantial funds on behalf of the client to obtain medical records or to obtain review of these records by physicians or other health care providers, what does Rule 2.8 require in terms of turning over to the client those medical records for which funds have been advanced? If Firm X informs the client that it will provide the medical records when the client reimburses it for the amount advanced, is it in violation of Rule 2.8? The client may, of course, obtain these records personally simply by requesting them from the treating physician or institution and paying the cost.
Law Firm X must turn over unconditionally to its client any material such as copies of medical reports or statements of expert opinion which were obtained on the client's behalf and account if such would be useful to the client in further prosecution of her claim. Rule 2.8(a)(2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires that a lawyer who withdraws from employment take reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable prejudice to rights of the client. One means of avoiding such prejudice is, in the language of the rule, "delivering to the client all papers and property to which the client is entitled." Although the rule itself does not define the extent of the client's entitlement, the comment to the rule does indicate that, "anything in the file which would be helpful to successor counsel should be turned over." There follows in the comment a nonexclusive listing of such items. While the comment does not specifically identify information gathered by a law firm incident to its determination whether it will accept a case as material which must be surrendered, there appears to be no logical reason to except such material from the obligation imposed by the rule. Regardless of the decision ultimately made by Firm X as to whether it wishes to prosecute the client's case to its conclusion, it is obvious that an attorney/client relationship exists during the period the case is being evaluated. That being the case, Rule 2.8 concerning withdrawal from representation would govern an attorney's actions in the wake of a decision not to undertake further prosecution of the client's case. If material obtained during the evaluation process on the client's account would be of some value to the client in pursuing her claim, it must, under the terms of the rule, be surrendered unconditionally without regard to whether the cost of its acquisition was advanced by the law firm or the client.