Dr. Joseph Lifschutz, Who Asserted Confidentiality Right for Therapists, Dies at 92

His case “was the first to assert clearly and formally that a constitutional right to privacy includes a psychotherapist-patient privilege,” Robert G. Meyer and Christopher M. Weaver wrote in “Law and Mental Health: A Case-Based Approach” (2006).

Dr. Saul Levin, chief executive and medical director of the American Psychiatric Association, called confidentiality one of the most important principles in medicine.

“I applaud Dr. Lifschutz for going to such great lengths for his patient, even at the risk of his own freedom,” Dr. Levin wrote in an email.

Technically, Dr. Lifschutz lost his case: The courts ruled that therapists, unlike priests, were not covered by an absolute privilege; that confidentiality was accorded to the patient, not the doctor; and that the disparate treatment of priests and therapists by the judicial system did not deny him equal protection under the law.

Still, the California courts recognized the necessity of confidentiality and set limits on how much a doctor had to disclose, even in cases in which a patient appeared to have waived a right to privacy by claiming mental or emotional stress.

“For the proper practice of psychotherapy, a patient has to open his mind as completely as humanly possible,” Dr. Lifschutz told The New York Times after his weekend in jail. “He must have absolute assurance that what he says will have total confidentiality.”

In 1996, Dr. Lifschutz sat through the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in a subsequent doctor-patient privilege case, Jaffee v. Redmond. In that case, the court ruled that federal judges must allow mental health professionals to refuse to disclose patient records in civil and criminal proceedings. Their ruling cited the Lifschutz case.

“Was it harder for the U.S. Supreme Court justices to dismiss the importance of confidentiality in psychotherapy while in the presence of someone who had gone to jail for it?” Bram Fridhandler, a California psychologist, wrote in 2005 in The San Francisco Psychologist. “We can only speculate. But we know that their decision has become the single most influential legal statement of the need for confidentiality to support effective psychotherapy, which they describe as a transcendent value for society.”

Joseph Emanuel Lifschutz was born in Brooklyn on April 30, 1924, to Oscar Lifschutz, who ran a grocery in the Williamsburg neighborhood, and the former Miriam Schor, both of them immigrants from Europe.

A graduate of Boys High School, he attended City College, Brooklyn College and the University of Oregon before serving in the Army in World War II. He completed his college studies after his military service, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1945. He then earned a medical degree from the University of…

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