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A mental health therapist was terminated after becoming disabled. When her personal property was returned, it included all schedule books (day planners) that she had used at the job except those for the last three years of employment. She has always purchased the blank books herself, and was responsible for all entries in them -- nobody else used the books while she was employed.

90% of the content was work related, but there are also personal notes inside that she would prefer not be shared with other employees or management. She believes her supervisor deliberately withheld those three years to use as ammunition against her in any possible future conflict.

Should the schedule books be returned as personal property?

If the employer could argue that the schedule books are company property because of the work related content, what excuse could they have for only retaining the last three years and returning all the rest?

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  • @joe-strazzere She is absolutely going to be. But I am not asking about her proper course of action, but the sense of the SE about whether it's her property or not. I realize that such an opinion is of no value in court or arbitration. Sep 24 at 23:37
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    It is of course too late to point out that she should have kept her personal notes separate from her work-related notes. Sep 25 at 1:19
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    My feeling is that if 90% is work related, she has nothing to complain about... but see a lawyer.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 25 at 1:37
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    Does the employer have their own system of record that documents all the appointments? If these day planners are the only documentation about when each patient met with the therapist (other than, looking through each patient's records of course), that would certainly look more like a business record than personal property. If everything was scheduled in a central electronic calendaring system and these day planners were just a non-authoritative copy of that information, they would look much more like personal property. Sep 25 at 2:57
  • What does this person's employment contract say? I don't know about mental health, but in most jobs you sign an agreement at the outset that anything you do on company time and related to company business belongs to the company. Some professions may have different rules, but it should be something that's broadly covered in an employment contract even if it doesn't precisely cover edge cases like this.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 25 at 16:45
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The therapeutic relationship is an intensely personal thing to the client. It is not uncommon for a client to follow a therapist to a new employer, i.e. because they do not feel like building trust with a new therapist. The employer may be seeking to ensure continuity in the quality of care for current and recent clients, and to prevent an exodus of clients.

The situation feels a bit grating. She bought those notebooks. But in my opinion, the therapist should not have expected the books to be returned as personal property:

  • Very little of the value of the notebooks is represented by the purchase price of the blanks.
  • The information contained in the notebooks represents the greater part of their value and (much of) this information was produced on the employer's time.

I feel the situation would be more clear-cut if the employer had reimbursed her for the blanks at the time of purchase. A hypothetical offer to reimburse her now feels quite different, but would result in the exact same scenario: Clearly, those notebooks are the employer's.

In many industries, the employer's stance would be made very explicit in non-disclosure agreement or non-compete clause in the employment contract.

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In most states there are specific required ethical guidelines for licensed mental health professionals about continuity of care and nonsolicitation of patients from other (or previous) practices that mean this information should absolutely stay with the practice, not to mention HIPAA requirements about securing anything that has information about patient care in it. ‘But I bought the paper it’s on or the pen it’s written with’ is completely irrelevant, in fact many practice/therapist arrangements are contract where the therapist provides the tools of their trade while doing the work. If they wrote patient information on anything, once they are leaving the practice, the practice needs to make sure that information is kept in a controlled environment. ‘There are also personal notes in there’ is irrelevant and just bad judgement on her part.

Frankly for a licensed therapist to be making a big deal out of “the notebooks are mine” makes me very suspicious that they are trying to poach clients, which looks like maybe it’s legal in NJ depending on what exactly she signed in her employment contract, but also means it’s disingenuous to pretend this is about the cost of the notebooks. Be honest.

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  • An excellent and perfect answer.
    – Fattie
    Sep 25 at 14:59
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    Guess who was recently involved in serving a lawsuit to a batch of therapists that thought they could steal patient notes and do this…
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 25 at 16:22
  • Poaching clients is absolutely not possible given this specific setting. Sep 26 at 0:07
  • @RossPresser why not? Reminder that "poaching" doesn't necessarily mean for themselves - therapist could very well be poaching clients for someone else Sep 28 at 8:13
  • The setting was a state prison. Her clients were inmates. Sep 28 at 12:40
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In general and without regard to OP's involvement in mental health, your employer has no extraordinary obligation with regard to personal property left on premises.

Your property remains your property after termination and your former is obligated to return it. However, having said that the obligation is minimal. From time to time, things get lost. As they say, sh*t happens. Is OP's former employer even acknowledging having the planners. If they lost them, there is not much that can be done.

It has never happened to me, but on the other hand I have kept easily replaceable things like toothbrush, toothpaste, cups, snacks at my desk. I never kept valuables at my desk. I never kept (personally) sensitive documents at my desk.

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