How to overcome my fear of getting sued?
July 15, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

How can I get over being afraid of getting sued? I like my mental health-related job but internally panic every time I have a client start saying they'll sue me, take my license, etc.

I am a clinical social worker doing mental health case management for children who are clinically labeled severely and persistently mentally ill (SPMI). These kids and their families often have a lot of comorbid socioeconomic and mental/chemical health issues. Many clients do stuff that could stereotypically be labeled "crazy" and it's just part of the job. I often get yelled at and sometimes physically accosted.

I've never done anything blatently illegal (sleep with a client, etc) but often angry clients will take anything, ligitimate or not, and run with it to the nearest authority figure. I've never had any of this get past the threat stage, but it still terrifies me. Having your credibility challenged and being taken to court, even if grievence is found to be baseless, is costly both emotionally and financially. My employer does offer legal counsel should I need it; I don't have my own malpractice insurance as of yet.

My employer is largely supportive and my coworkers deal with the same stuff on a daily basis. I like my job and my clients but my phobia of being sued for whatever reason makes me lose sleep and want to design dog sweaters write mumblecore short fiction for a living instead.

TLDR: How can I rationally cope with the statistically slim chance I'll have a client go legally bananas on me?
posted by ShadePlant to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You should be getting professional supervision on a regular schedule. Are you, and have you raised this question in that context?

I don't mean to diminish the difficulty of your situation. I've known other people who work with troubled kids, and they also spoke about these and related concerns (false accusations of sexual abuse, etc). But this background would be helpful.

Good luck with your situation.
posted by alms at 8:19 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Realtors deal with this too.

If I were you I'd talk to someone who has been doing this job awhile for their take on it-the fact your employer offers legal counsel is them letting you know that they stand behind you and understand that sometimes these threats are part of the job.

If you do have malpractice insurance available go ahead and get it. This may enable you to relax a little more.

And, remember this: realistically people such as your clients have a hard time being taken seriously even when they should be. So if they are saying something groundless, I have a hard time believing it would go anywhere.

You are doing a very valuable and very draining job. Take care of yourself.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:19 AM on July 15, 2010

Counterbalance your fears in equal proportion with meticulous communication and ethical documentation practices. Make sure you are in a really good position with your colleagues, any supervisors, and particularly your professional body (consider being more active with them), since any complaint will come through them. After that, eat well, get enough sleep and exercise, consider meditation, journaling, and/or periodic personal counselling to unload your stress and to encourage a positive outlook. This is not uncommon.
posted by kch at 8:25 AM on July 15, 2010

Do the right thing.

That's been my mantra as I've worked doing family therapy, alternative education, counseling, etc...

Somehow you've got to maintain the mind-set that if you do the right thing, treat your clients with care and compassion, the karma will be positive.

Eventually you'll develop the confidence in yourself, and a belief that the system is fair, and the anxiety won't be as constant (not that it feels good when someone you're trying to help wants to destroy your career, but at least you'll have some belief that they won't be successful).

And, get the's like chicken soup......
posted by HuronBob at 8:29 AM on July 15, 2010

Information is your friend. Your employer needs to be clear with you about what you can and cannot do and exactly where the boundaries are. If in doubt, do nothing and ask your supervisor for guidance. I always feel less anxious when I know exactly what is proper and improper.

Also: document everything. If someone threatens to sue, their file should have a note: "On July 2nd, Mrs. Client had a concern about why I did XYZ for her child. I explained to her that I did so because of Rule#333, but still she was dissatisfied and felt that I was negligent. She threatened to sue me and later discussed the situation with Ms. Supervisor."

Hopefully Ms. Supervisor could also update the notes to say that she spoke with the person on July 3rd, and re-explained Rule#333 and clearly communicated to Mrs. Client that she supported your choices.

Then, you have a clearly documented string of events and the specific written approval from your supervisor for each one. I love having my ducks in a row!
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:13 AM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have a much less stressful way job in which people threaten to sue me on a near weekly basis. (Well, less often lately, the economy must be picking up.) Here is what I have learned:

People who are going to sue you do not threaten to sue you. They quietly call their lawyers, and their lawyers file a lawsuit or issue a demand letter of some kind.

People who threaten to sue you do not have lawyers, or do not have good lawyers, because if they had good lawyers, the lawyers would have already told them not to threaten people with lawsuits without talking to the lawyer first.

"I'm calling my lawyer and he's going to sue you!" may be the most oft spoken lie in the English language. Even if the first part is true, the second almost never is.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:13 AM on July 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

St Alia of the Bunnies: "realistically people such as your clients have a hard time being taken seriously."

I agree with that. I often deal with people who are a little unusual for the same reasons you describe and I always imagine they are just bringing up the most powerful thing they can think of ("SUING!") because they want to intimidate me into taking them more seriously.

I don't think they do it to be malicious, necessarily, they are just confused and so used to being downtrodden and pushed aside that they will overcompensate by being extra litigious, even when there is no basis.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:18 AM on July 15, 2010

Yeah, this is the kind of stuff I would bring to case conferencing with a clinical supervisor or head of your division or however your agency is structured to make sure that there is communication and maybe even a papertrail regarding client interactions above and beyond billing notes so you have time stamped documents that could be forwarded to the court in the case of legal action. Getting into the routine of having documentation and professional corroboration supporting your version of events, while it might make more work up front, will help you relax in the longterm.

I do mental health case management for a drug court program so I can tell you that judges and attorneys form their arguments entirely based on person, place, time. As in, "On Monday, June 16th, at 4:45pm, defendant Jones stated..." Telling them, "Well, this one time he said something like this" is essentially useless for court purposes. When I am creating my weekly reports for court I frame all information supplied to the legal team in person, place, time fashion, referencing also dates of my case notes in our information system and dates/times of relevant phone calls and meetings.
posted by The Straightener at 9:30 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These answers are great... I am will definitely continue reading any new ideas as well. My supervision is pretty lackluster... My supervisor is not a social worker and is manager of two departments. I see this person maybe once every two weeks and getting them on the phone is even more difficult. I will definitely be more zealous about documentation from now on. I keep saying I'm gonna quit and go get an MBA... but I really don't want to! :)
posted by ShadePlant at 9:37 AM on July 15, 2010

Best answer: I keep saying I'm gonna quit and do something that pays better, like construction or landscaping.

Seriously, though, even an email about an event that troubled you to this person is fine, regardless of whether they respond or provide you with constructive feedback. The important thing is to document your version of events how they happened as close to the event time as possible. This from a court perspective will be considered the best version of events, not colored by time or subject to revision through memory. If you also send an email stating your concerns it documents that you not only did your job as a social worker but reached out to your supervisor for support. If your supervisor does not read the email and appears unfamiliar with the event when questioned at a later date, that's his problem, it won't reflect on you, professionally.
posted by The Straightener at 9:46 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Several thoughts:

In the agency where I worked with essentially the same population, this was never seen as a concern. I wonder if talking to your employer to gather more info about the possibility of being sued would help you to feel a bit better. In addition to clarifying the employer's exact reaction to such a lawsuit and all of the resources they have in such a case, you could get a sense of how often such lawsuits have actually occurred and possibly the outcome. I think you will find that it is very rare, and social workers are not usually the target. I would think that doctors, who prescribe medications, and the actual facilities, where such things as slip-and-falls and other chances for bodily harm can occur are the target for the vast majority of lawsuits. Lawyers are aware that the real money is in suing the organization and the folks with the money, not the social worker, who is paid a pittance for very hard work.

Lawsuits require resources of connections, time, and money. My clients had very little access to any of these resources. There were instances where I felt that the family probably should have sued someone/some entity, but they were unwilling/unable to actually do so.

Documentation is very important for many reasons in mental health. Do not forget to note it each time a client threatens to sue you or your employer and the circumstances around the threat. Speak with your supervisor after any threat, both to alert them to the threat, and also to process the situation and your feelings and reactions to the situation.

Are there organizations you can belong to outside your employer that offer personal growth opportunities, support, and possibly legal advice or even legal protections? Find those groups and join for additional peace of mind.

Though your question has me now questioning if I were a bit cavalier about the whole issue when I worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor, I also wonder if your work environment feels less safe to you in general than mine did. Is there a lot of general fear about being sued there? Are there things going on that you feel are shady, even if you are not directly involved?

You say "I've never done anything blatently illegal (sleep with a client, etc) but often angry clients will take anything, ligitimate or not, and run with it to the nearest authority figure." Oh, sure, this happens all the time, especially when you are working with mentally ill and disenfranchised folks. 1. Does your employer respond supportively and appropriately when a client goes over your head? Or do you feel that there is a tendency to give the complaint more credence than it is worth due to the employers' fear of being sued themselves? 2. The word "blatantly" worries me a little. Man, mental health can be a minefield. There are lots of shades of gray when you deal with people on such an intimate level, especially children. There are the blatant examples of misconduct, then there are the less-clear areas. This is where belonging to an organization that is there for you as a social worker, and having an ally in the workplace, either a supervisor or mentor, is so important. We all need someone with whom we can discuss these issues without fear of censure. And if you are doing something that you feel is "iffy," you must stop that behavior, even if it is part of the work-place culture.

Finally, you do not mention how long you have been a social worker, but I'll bet not terribly long. Some of this fear will abate with more experience and confidence. Soon, you will be able to roll your eyes (figuratively, at least in front of the client) when you hear,"I'll sue!!"

Please Me-Mail me if you want to talk about this further.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:13 AM on July 15, 2010

Technology may be able to help. Get an inexpensive webcam or even just a computer microphone. Tape all your interactions with clients.

Actually, I don't know if that violates some kind of health privacy law, but if it doesn't, it'll at least give you the peace of mind to know that an objective record of what really happened is available.

Actually, maybe that would be a really bad idea if you deal with people with paranoid disorders. But it's an idea, anyhow.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:18 AM on July 15, 2010

Response by poster: There isn't a "thing" I am specificially worried about, it's just more vague I COULD GET SUED SOMETIME FOR SOMETHING ACK. A couple clients are just of the "You'll lose your job if I don't get (something case managers have no control over) by X time!" variety. I know who they are; this is standard MO for them. I was trying to say I am worried about getting sued even for something of indeterminate origin that would not be "oh yeah duh that's a no-no" type of thing...
posted by ShadePlant at 10:34 AM on July 15, 2010

Response by poster: Oh sorry, forgot to add: I've been doing my job for two years, just got my MSW and basic license in May. Am starting supervision for my clinical license (with a different supervisor) soon... This should help. My agency has offered to pay for my supervision provided I stay for two years after I get my license so I assume this means they have some confidence in me. In general they're supportive, just kind of busy/overstretched.
posted by ShadePlant at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2010

Do not listen to Salvor Hardin's advice, it is extraordinarily bad advice that will at least ruin your clinical interactions and possibly get you criminally charged or dismissed from your job. I think that's probably evident, though.

I think that while thebrokedown raises some good points there can be extra complications in terms of working with children, especially for example in a city like Philadelphia where there have recently been MASSIVE criminal fraud cases against the city's child welfare department that resulted in social workers getting heavy sentences (like 17 years upstate heavy). I get where ShadePlant is coming from because right now every agency is over worked, under funded and if you work with a super sensitive population like mentally ill children and it feels like things are not getting dealt with in a timely fashion because, well, they're not since the resources simply don't exist then I would be nervous, too. My best social worker friend is totally in this same situation in a group home for deliquent kids in Camden, she's been asked to shoulder about 4 different job descriptions and stuff has happened in terms of unaddressed client needs because of understaffing that resulted in phone calls that sounded threatening in terms of possible legal liabilities, which almost caused her to have a nervous breakdown. Be careful, it's a bad time to be doing this work because everyone is being asked to do way too much with way too little in terms of resources, so document, document, document and protect yourself professionally.
posted by The Straightener at 10:48 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"My supervision is pretty lackluster..."

Might there be a regional or national professional association in your field that offers a program to connect with mentors outside of your workplace? That could be a way to get a different perspective.
posted by nuffsaid at 11:29 AM on July 15, 2010

Best answer: I'm just going to repeat what's already been said because it's dead on:

1) Maintain your notes. Up to date with zero errors. Spend less time having anxiety over being sued by having more anxiety with trying to have perfect notes
2) Continue with excellent supervision
3) Don't sleep with your clients. It's the most common lawsuit. In most cases, if you don't sleep with them, you're ok.
4) Talk with someone that has been sued. They will probably tell you it was an awful experience but nothing that they couldn't handle.
posted by WhiteWhale at 11:37 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The fear is good! The fear is what will keep you on your toes, keep you maintaining your notes, keep you always on the right side of the line. Should you eventually actually BE sued, the fear will, in retrospect, turn out to be what saved your bacon.

As you know, for someone in your position, the fear of being sued is realistic. A realistic fear isn't really a clinical issue, if you follow me.

Let this fear guide your day-to-day practices. This is how fear protects you; let it do its job. Fear is a useful emotion.

But keep it on a short leash. Do not let it leak into your non-work life, or into other areas where it does not belong.
posted by ErikaB at 12:28 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do not video or record your meetings or consults unless it's standard in your area of work and you have appropriate and legal consent forms (I'm betting it's not, and you don't; in my practice it is and I do). However, if you do have a difficult transaction, it may be appropriate to set in place a practice of bringing in a more senior colleague to be present during the interaction and then document document document what happened.
posted by kch at 12:40 PM on July 15, 2010

Ok, sorry, there ya go, hence the disclaimers.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:27 PM on July 15, 2010

Is your new clinical supervisor within your agency or someone outside? I only know the LPC routine, but in Georgia we can get licensure supervision from a non-agency person. Everyone I know who's gone that route has been very happy to have the neutral third-party voice of reason.

The phrase we are told over and over is "seek supervision" when you are worried. Call someone into your office to defuse or witness. Make sure your case notes document that "client raised her voice several times and said 'I am going to sue you for everything you have'. Client appeared agitated and her mood was volatile" or whatever fits your note.
posted by catlet at 7:59 PM on July 15, 2010

Might there be a regional or national professional association in your field that offers a program to connect with mentors outside of your workplace? That could be a way to get a different perspective.
posted by nuffsaid at 2:29 PM on July 15

Are there organizations you can belong to outside your employer that offer personal growth opportunities, support, and possibly legal advice or even legal protections? Find those groups and join for additional peace of mind.
posted by thebrokedown

Thirding this.

Professional associations exist in part to provide their members with education and support for legal issues if they do crop up. A quick search brings up the National Association of Social Workers and the Clinical Social Work Association. I can't speak to the work of either of these associations, but giving them (or another social work org) a call and asking how you can get involved might be a good idea.
posted by Joad at 12:26 AM on July 17, 2010

It will probably just take time. The first few times someone threatens to sue you are understandably scary, but the 1000th time someone threatens to sue you (and no one has ever made good on the previous 999 threats) will probably just make you yawn.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:43 PM on July 17, 2010

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