Thursday, February 11, 2010

Involuntary commitment case is going to trial

Here's an interesting case. A man with a history of mental illness sued a public doctor who had him involuntarily committed after he allegedly threatened mental health officials who expressed skepticism over his claim that he had a sexual relationship with a case worker. The case is going to trial.

The case is Bolmer v. Oliveria, decided on February 8. The due process clause of the Constitution makes it illegal to lock you up in a mental institution against your will "if the decision to commit is based on substantive and procedural criteria that are ... substantially below the standards generally accepted in the medical community." Rodriquez v. City of New York, 72 F.3d 1051 (2d Cir. 1995).

On this legal standard, Bolmer brought the lawsuit after he was released from the facility after 15 days, when a staff member discovered that Bolmer had many text messages with the female case worker, seriously undercutting the preliminary diagnosis of erotomania (the delusional belief that you are in a sexual relationship with someone else). As mental health officials had a cursory meeting with Bolmer before committing him to the hospital and he did not yell or truly threaten any violence, Bolmer legitimately raises questions about whether he was a threat to himself or others. Of course, by this point, the hospital had injected Bolmer with anti-psychotic medication.

Who knows where the truth lies? The parties have different accounts over what happened when mental health officials questioned Bolmer about his alleged delusions. After the district court denied Oliveria qualified immunity, he appealed. The Court of Appeals can hear interlocutory (or premature) appeals on qualified immunity grounds, but not if qualified immunity is denied on the basis of disputed facts as opposed to the defendant's argument that the law is sufficiently unclear that he gets the benefit of the doubt on close constitutional issues. Since the district court denied qualified immunity on factual grounds, the Court of Appeals lacks jurisdiction to resolve the qualified immunity appeal on the merits.

Although the Court of Appeals (McLaughlin, Wesley and Kahn [D.J.]) has no jurisdiction to resolve Oliveria's defense, it does take the time to shoot down his argument that the Rodriguez case cited above is no longer good law in light of a subsequent Supreme Court case, County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998), which applies a "shocks the conscience" test for substantive due process claims. This is more stringent than the Rodriguez case, but the Second Circuit saves Rodriguez from the trash bin by pointing out that the Supreme Court in County of Sacramento said that "shocks the conscience" is "not a stand-alone test for determining whether particular executive conduct violates substantive due process; rather, it provides a framework for making such a determination." As the Rodriguez test is consistent with the Supreme Court's framework in resolving substantive due process claims, it remains good law.

One last point. Bolmer also proceeds under the Americans With Disabilities Act because defendants stereotyped him in committing him against his will. Defendant raised an Eleventh Amendment argument against enforcing Title II of the ADA in this context. (For the non-lawyers, the Eleventh Amendment has been interpreted to disallow lawsuits in federal court against the states unless Congress validly sets aside that immunity). The Second Circuit rejects that argument because Congress validly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity in authorizing Bolmer's claim against these officials. This is a complicated legal issue, boiling down the finding that Congress properly allowed people like Bolmer to sue the state in federal court where he makes out a Title II and Equal Protection claim arising from an involuntary commitment.

1 comment:

broadpowers said...

We at Pacific South Western Advocates in Victoria, British Columbia Canada are very interested in this case.

It sounds like abuse of power, BIG TIME! How can one succesfully challenge psychiatric medical staff when they can lock a citizen away, drug them, deny them access to a phone if staff believe the proposed patient is not fit to use a phone etc.

If these so called professionals are found to have abused their powers, they should pay dearly for the harm caused to this person. In addition to compensating the victim, the medical staff involved should get jail time.

It's one thing to be locked away in jail or prison with access to phones, but when citizens are detained against their will, drugged, locked in a psychiatric ward UN-LAWFULLY, then Houston, we all have a problem, and somebody needs to hold these un-ethical medical professionals accountable!