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How Far Back Can Medical Records Be Subpoenaed in California?

March 26, 2024

Medical records play a major role in legal proceedings as they provide information about a patient’s medical history as evidence in health-related cases. Sometimes, court cases can last years, and it may take a long time before the parties decide to take the matter to court. As such, it’s possible that you may need to subpoena medical records as evidence long after the record was created. So, how far back can these medical records be subpoenaed in California?

Typically, medical records can be subpoenaed between two to ten years. However, the exact timeframe depends on various factors such as the state record retention rules, statutes of limitations, and other local regulations. That’s why you need an experienced process server to ensure that subpoenas are served correctly in accordance with the law.

On-Call Legal is your go-to expert for all subpoena services, both within California and nationwide. Our certified process servers are always available to help you deliver your medical records subpoenaed without any hassle. We do not just serve your subpoena; we also help you stay compliant and provide expert guidance throughout the process. Schedule a free consultation with us today to discuss your subpoena service needs and get started immediately.

In this article, you’ll learn how far back you can request medical records, the factors that influence these timeframes, the legal framework surrounding subpoenas, and much more.

Legal Regulations Guiding Subpoena For Medical Records in California

Legal Regulations Guiding Subpoena For Medical Records in California

Subpoenas for medical records are legal documents that order a healthcare provider to produce a patient’s medical records for a court case or legal proceeding. Medical records cover a broad range of information, including the patient’s medical history (such as the patient’s illnesses and treatments), clinical notes, lab test results, treatment plans, etc.  

In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is the federal law that regulates the disclosure of sensitive health information. The HIPAA applies to healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses, as well as their business associates who handle protected health information (PHI)

In California, the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (CMIA) stipulated in Section 56.10 of the California Civil Code is the state privacy law that aligns with HIPAA but also provides additional protection for medical information. The California Evidence Code specifies the rules for what evidence can be presented in court, including medical records.

According to the Evidence Code, only a grand jury, an administrative tribunal, an attorney, or court clerks can issue subpoenas for a medical record during a court case or a court hearing to obtain relevant medical information.

Usually, defendants can get their own medical records without having to issue a subpoena. However, there may be cases where a subpoena is necessary to ensure that the medical provider delivers the requested records.

As an attorney seeking medical records through a subpoena, you must ensure that the subpoena complies with HIPAA requirements and other relevant state laws. This means the subpoena must specifically request only medical records relevant to the case and not subject to privilege. It should also include the purpose for disclosure. The subpoena should also include a notice to the healthcare provider in adherence to HIPAA’s privacy regulations. Attorneys must protect any PHI obtained through a subpoena from inappropriate usage. 

For an administrative tribunal or grand jury subpoena signed by a judge or magistrate, the recipient must honor the subpoena and provide the required health information. Nonetheless, they reserve the right to file a motion to object to the subpoena. The motion must be filed in writing to the court, specifying the perceived grounds for objection. If there is no objection, a healthcare provider or health plan is only permitted to disclose the information specifically stated.

Also, as an attorney or a lawyer, you can’t obtain medical records via a subpoena in the early stages of a case, like a medical malpractice suit. You have to wait until the case is close to trial or already in trial mode. Then, you can legally serve a subpoena to compel the healthcare provider to provide the requested medical records.

How Far Back Can Medical Records Be Subpoenaed?

How Far Back Can Medical Records Be Subpoenaed?

How far back you can subpoena medical records depends on several factors including the type of case and records, the jurisdiction, and the local laws regarding the retention of medical records. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not specify any requirements for medical record retention. Instead, different states stipulate laws that regulate how long their medical bodies retain medical records.

In California, different health plans require health providers and physicians to maintain their records for certain periods, generally ranging from two to ten years.

Moreover, state laws set a legal time limit, called the statute of limitations, that specifies when you can file a lawsuit for medical malpractice or other medical claims. The California statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases is between 1 to 3 years.

However, there are exceptions to these time limits. For example, cases involving minors may have an extended statute of limitations. Also, if the healthcare provider fraudulently conceals the injury, the time limit may be extended as well.

Factors That Influence the Time Frame For Which Medical Records Can Be Subpoenaed

Factors That Influence the Time Frame For Which Medical Records Can Be Subpoenaed

Many factors may combine to determine how far back you can subpoena medical records in California. Such factors include:

  • State-mandated retention periods
  • Statutes of limitations
  • Relevance and specificity of the request
  • Privacy rules and regulations
  • Physical condition and format of records
  • Notice to the patient for their consent
  • Protective orders from the court

The Process of Subpoenaing Medical Records in California

The Process of Subpoenaing Medical Records in California

The process of submitting medical records can vary depending on the specific circumstances of your case and the privacy rules of your jurisdiction. However, the general procedure includes the following steps:

  1. Draft a subpoena requesting the specific medical records needed for the case. Include details such as the patient’s name, date of birth, and any relevant dates of treatment.
  2. If required by law, provide a written notice to the patient or their lawyer about the subpoena. The written notice should include sufficient information about the right to challenge the subpoena and the deadline for doing so.
  3. If all parties involved have consented to a qualified protective order and issued a written statement, file it with the court and include this written consent with the subpoena. Also, note that before sharing a patient’s protected health information with others, you must get their permission by having them sign a HIPAA release form. The exceptions are cases that require routine disclosures permitted by the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
  4. Serve the subpoena on the healthcare providers or their legal representatives. While personal service remains the most preferred method of service, you do not necessarily need to serve a subpoena in person. You can explore other service options such as service by mail, but make sure to follow the specific rules for service in your jurisdiction. The best way to stay compliant while serving a subpoena is to engage the services of our professional process servers at On-Call Legal.
  5. If the healthcare provider notifies the patient about the subpoena and does not challenge it within the response deadline, the provider may release the information as requested.
  6. After the lawsuit ends, the protective order usually requires that the parties involved must destroy or return the health information obtained through the subpoena.

Potential Obstacles to Subpoenaing Medical Records

You might encounter a few obstacles while trying to obtain medical records via a subpoena. Sometimes, patients or healthcare providers might object to a subpoena. They may cite reasons like privacy concerns or burdensome requests. To overcome this, make sure to issue a valid subpoena that is specific in its request.

Sometimes, you can receive incomplete records if the healthcare provider in charge of the records has lost or disposed of some part of the records. In such cases, you can request to know why the records are missing and try to obtain any available records that are relevant to your case. Also, certain kinds of records, such as mental health records, may have additional protections and may only be released following a court order.

Also, subpoenaing medical records can be costly, especially if the case requires extensive records from multiple providers. Other challenges include time constraints, confidentiality concerns, etc.

Privacy Requirements for Subpoenaing Medical Records

Privacy Requirements for Subpoenaing Medical Records

The privacy and confidentiality of medical records are as important as the attorneys’ need to access patient’s medical records to build their cases. That’s why privacy laws in California and in the US at large were designed to protect patient information from unauthorized access and disclosure.

As such, individuals can take several steps to protect their medical information. This includes being cautious about sharing sensitive information or using strong passwords for online medical portals. For instance, the executor of a deceased patient may need to authorize the release of the medical records of the deceased before you can subpoena and access them.

As an attorney, your goal should be to ensure that a subpoena request for medical records is specific and necessary. This helps ascertain that you have access to the information you need without compromising patient confidentiality.

What Makes a Subpoena Invalid in California?

What Makes a Subpoena Invalid in California?

In California, healthcare providers are not obligated to respond to an invalid subpoena. As such, you need to understand what can invalidate a subpoena so you can avoid them and serve legally valid requests. Possible reasons a subpoena can be invalid include: 

  • Improper service or delivery of the subpoena. 
  • Requesting information that is confidential or protected by law
  • Subpoena issued by an unauthorized person or entity
  • Failing to comply with legal requirements, such as not providing enough notice to the recipient
  • Seeking information that is not relevant to the case or is overly broad

To avoid the risk of issuing an invalid subpoena, review the subpoena to ensure that it complies with all legal requirements. This includes proper service and relevance of the information requested. If you find any issues, consider withdrawing the subpoena and reissuing it with the necessary corrections. If the recipient raises any objections or challenges, address them promptly and in accordance with the law.


Subpoenaing medical records in California requires a balance between legal requirements and patient privacy rights. California’s privacy laws, such as the CMIA and CCPA, seek to protect a patient’s medical record. Understanding these laws ensures compliance for attorneys and healthcare providers alike. Also, issuing an invalid subpoena can potentially jeopardize your case. Ensure that you follow proper legal procedures. This also includes respecting patient privacy while fulfilling legal obligations.

To reduce the risk of legal compliance issues, it’s best to contact a process server to serve your subpoena for medical records. On-Call Legal is the best professional process server in California. Our team of experts is experienced and dedicated to making the process of gathering crucial evidence easier for you. Book a free consultation with us today!

On-demand legal services with arranging services from eFiling to organizing and preparing your subpoena for records and/or personal appearance and much more.