Friday, June 8, 2018

Involuntary commitment case dismissed on technical grounds

This long-running litigation involves a man who has challenged various aspects of his mental health commitment at institutions on Long Island. The Court of Appeals resolves this case on procedural matters, reminding us once again that many cases end in disappointment, on the basis of technical grounds that most plaintiffs are not aware of when they first brought the lawsuit.

The case is Monaco v. Sullivan, a summary order issued on June 5. This is one of the longest summary orders I've seen, totaling 18 pages. Most are 4 or 5 pages that summarize the ruling. Plaintiff sued various state officials for due process over his commitment to his psychiatric incarceration. At some point, he was the lead plaintiff in a class action over involuntary commitments. Under the due process clause, certain involuntary commitments are illegal, particularly if they are based on questionable medical judgments. Here is where things went wrong for plaintiff in this case.

First, in June 1998, a state court authorized plaintiff's civil commitment. That ruling followed full litigation on the issue. The Appellate Division then dismissed his appeal as moot. The federal court therefore said this claim cannot proceed any further because of collateral estoppel, one of those technical legal principles I mentioned above. Under this estoppel principle, if you lose the case in state court after having had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues, you cannot bring the same claim in federal court, even if you think the state court judges are clowns. The Court of Appeals (Parker, Livingston and Chin) notes that plaintiff a full opportunity to litigate this issue in state court. But plaintiff says collateral estoppel cannot attach because he never had a chance to appeal that state court ruling to the Appellate Division, as that court dismissed his appeal as moot. Precedent holds that collateral estoppel applies when "a party is prohibited from appealing 'as a matter of law.'" In New York, "an appellate court's dismissal of a case on mootness grounds leaves the lower court's decision intact for preclusion purposes, unless an appellate court specifically directs the lower court to vacate its earlier decision." That did not happen here. The Second Department said the appeal was moot but it did not tell the lower court to vacate its ruling. This is the ultimate technicality, but precedent commands it, and that brings plaintiff's due process challenge to an end.

Plaintiff also sues a doctor, claiming the doctor coerced him to enter a psychiatric facility. The doctors wins the case on qualified immunity grounds, yet another technical defense to these claims, which lets government defendants off the hook if they did not violate clearly-established law. While plaintiff said the doctor coerced him to enter the facility, state law allows doctors to "encourage" people to do so. Perhaps there is a fine line between encouragement and coercion, but "complying with this duty can hardly amount to 'a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice of standards,'" the test under the due process clause for cases like this.

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