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California Bans Inquiries on Would-be Lawyers’ Mental Health

July 30, 2019, 10:41 PM

The California Bar starting in January will be prohibited from seeking prospective lawyers’ mental health records under a just-enacted law.

California becomes the latest state to remove the requirement for prospective lawyers to indicate their mental health and sign over medical records under Senate Bill 544. California lawyers once they pass the bar must be determined to be of “good moral character” under the state Business & Professions Code Section 6060(b). California lawyers are subject to regulation by the legislature and admission and discipline by the California Supreme Court.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed S.B. 544, which was introduced by Sen. Thomas Umberg (D), on July 30. The bill received no opposition or no votes. The bill is sponsored by Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocating for people with disabilities. It was signed 29 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which further protects those with disabilities from discrimination.

“The purpose of the bill is to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, and to help mitigate any chilling effect that prevent[s] law students from getting treatment for mental health issues, including sexual assault and PTSD,” Umberg said in a statement. “There are candidates who do not seek honest and warranted professional help, out of fear they have to divulge those records. SB 544 will stop the bar from asking for access to those records in most cases.”

Neither the bar nor the examining committee can seek, consider, or review an applicant’s medical records relating to mental health when deciding whether an applicant is of good moral character under the new law. The law contains an exception if applicants seek to use the record to demonstrate they are of good moral character or as a mitigating factor.

Virginia, Washington, and Louisiana have already enacted similar prohibitions on seeking attorneys’ mental health records.

The New York State Bar Association launched a task force June 10 to review the state’s bar application, making sure mental health treatment does not negatively affect admission. The goal is to have recommendations by November.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com