Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No state action in suit against private mental health facility

The Constitution only regulates government behavior, not private behavior. Someone can censor you, and it would be legal, but if the government does it, it's illegal. We call it "state action," i.e., you can sue for a constitutional violation if there is state action. There was no state action in a lawsuit resolved today by the Court of Appeals, so the case is dismissed.

The case is Sybalski v. Independent Group Home Living Program, decided on October 15. The plaintiff sued a group home, alleging that it placed unlawful restrictions on family members from visiting their mentally-ill son after they complained about living conditions. Sounds like a First Amendment case, but it's not, because the group home does not have any connection with the government. The family argued that the home is extensively regulated by the state, and that this regulation creates a nexus between public and private entities, hence state action. But, as the Court of Appeals notes, "While the state has established substantive rights for patients in mental health facilities and procedures for protecting these rights, those actions, without more, do not amount to 'significant encouragement,' 'willful particip[ation],' or state 'entwin[ing],' in defendants’ decision to restrict the Sybalskis’ access to their son."

In other words, "While the State of New York has established procedures governing the limitations that mental health facilities place on the ability of patients to receive visitors, the administrators of those facilities make the decision about whether such limitations should be imposed. Accordingly, based on the facts alleged in the complaint, the state’s involvement in defendants’ decision to restrict the Sybalskis’ access to their son is insufficient to render that decision “state action” under the joint action test."

The plaintiffs also invoke the "public function" test, which creates state action if the otherwise private entity is performing a public function as defined by the courts. Under the public function test, “the exercise by a private entity of powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the [s]tate” can constitute “state action.” Not in this case. The operation of a facility like this is not a traditional state function, as opposed to the police or fire departments. As caring for the mentally ill is not a public function under this definition, there is no state action, and the case is dismissed.

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