Although forensic psychologists are often associated with their work in criminal litigation, they also lend their expertise to civil matters. Forensic psychologists working in the civil courts generally provide psychological evaluations for plaintiffs seeking monetary damages for mental health impairment or emotional distress.
Civil cases in which forensic psychologists provide their services include:
- Guardianship issues (capacity to make medical, financial decisions)
- Personal injury
- Medical malpractice
- Employment litigation
- Workers’ compensation
- Psychiatric disability
- ADA claims
- Fitness to return to work
- Sexual harassment
Forensic Psychologists in Civil Law: Job Description and Practice Guidelines
Plaintiffs in civil litigation often assert that a defendant’s act or omission resulted in their emotional distress or mental health impairment, and for this reason they believe they are entitled to monetary compensation.
In these cases, forensic psychologists evaluate plaintiffs to determine the validity of their claims. Many times, these psychology professionals must offer their opinion regarding both causation (weather or not the defendant caused injury or distress) and damages (what the plaintiff is entitled to for the injury or distress suffered). This means that forensic evaluations involve assessing the plaintiff’s baseline level of functioning before the alleged injury or distress occurred, as well as their condition afterward.
Forensic psychologists must thoroughly evaluate plaintiffs’ history of pre-existing medical conditions, disorders or their pre-disposition to such disorders. Clinical/psychiatric causation is often a multifaceted concept, and it may be bio-psycho-social in nature. The law generally requires plaintiffs to prove that the incident or event for which they are seeking monetary damages caused or exacerbated an existing medical condition.
Upon performing a psychological evaluation/assessment, forensic psychologists render a clinical opinion based on the law—rather than on mere clinical terms of psychological injury.
In addition to providing independent mental health evaluations, forensic psychologists working in civil litigation often provide the following services:
- Psychological autopsies (involves investigating a person’s death by reconstructing what the person thought, felt, or did before death)
- Expert testimony
- Case consultation
- Witness trial and preparation
- Review and analysis of records
The Basis for Professional Opinions
Forensic psychologists base their professional opinion on the following:
Forensic psychologists must sift through evidence that often includes medical, psychiatric, and psychological records from prior to, during, and after the period of time when the incident/circumstances took place. Some of the information forensic psychologists are looking for includes records of earlier emotional trauma, chronic medical conditions, and other conditions that could have produced emotional symptoms following the events in question.
In addition to studying and analyzing evidence, forensic psychologists examine the plaintiffs, learning about their personal, development, educational, employment, academic, family, marital, medical, and legal histories.
Upon completion of an exhaustive interview process, forensic psychologists then perform and analyze psychological testing and interpret the results. The interpretation of test data either confirms or contradicts the forensic psychologist’s differential diagnosis (working hypothesis).
Psychological and neuropsychological testing provides an objective means with which to remove the possibility of exaggeration, embellishment, or minimization on the part of the plaintiff. Competent forensic psychologists are able to sort out this information and determine how much of the underlying personality structure affects the plaintiff’s symptoms.
In civil litigation, forensic psychologists utilize a number of self-report personality tests, such as:
- Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
- Personality Assessment Inventory
- Rorschach Inkblot Test
The work of forensic psychologists in civil litigation provides a great deal of insight regarding the severity, veracity, and causes of psychological damage.
Training and Certification Options for Forensic Psychologists in Civil Litigation Settings
The civil arena provides a number of opportunities for career specialization for the practicing forensic psychologist. Civil matters may include issues such as:
- Emotional damage
- Involuntary treatment
- Harassment and discrimination
- Civil competency
- Professional malpractice
- Product liability
- Psychology autopsies
This line of work offers a unique take on forensic psychology. Though a master’s or doctoral degree in general clinical psychology or forensic psychology provides the standard route into any specialty in the field of forensic psychology, it’s not a bad idea to also select some courses in civil law.
Additional opportunities for specialized training and education in civil law for forensic psychologists occur during the completion of internship and post-doctoral fellowship requirements.
Finally, post-doctoral training and education—both of which are required to achieve forensic psychology specialty certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology Specialty Certification (ABPP)—is often sought by forensic psychologists interested in focusing their careers on civil litigation.
ABPP certification, widely considered a fundamental professional designation in psychology, requires a state license to practice clinical psychology, as well as the following forensic psychology competencies:
- At least 100 hours of formal education, direct supervision, or continuing education in forensic psychology after the date the doctoral degree was earned; AND
- At least 1,000 hours of experience in forensic psychology, which was obtained by completing at least 5 years of post-doctoral experience (an LLB or JD degree may be substituted for two of the five years of experience); OR
- At least 2,000 hours of post-doctoral training in forensic psychology, meeting APA curriculum guidelines
Candidates for ABPP forensic psychology specialty certification must take and pass a written and oral examination and satisfactorily complete a credential review process.