A divided Indiana Court of Appeals struck a special condition that a man who had been subject to a mental health order of commitment not use alcohol or drugs. The court also criticized the hospital for seeking legal fees in the case from the Marion County Public Defender Agency.
The majority of the COA panel found that there was insufficient evidence to support the special condition placed on M.L., because the doctor treating him said there was no indication that he used alcohol or drugs not prescribed by a doctor.
Dr. Aimee Patel treated M.L., 30, who she said exhibited clear bipolar mania in November 2016. He was admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit on an emergency detention. M.L. had been treated at the hospital previously, and he returned demanding a list of chemicals he had been exposed to. Patel said M.L. was paranoid, delusional, pressured, and threatened himself and staff after he was placed in restraints.
The trial court commitment order included the mandate that upon attaining outpatient status, M.L. not use drugs or alcohol other than those prescribed by a doctor.
Because the order of commitment expired in March, Eskenazi Health argued the case was moot, and that M.L. had waived the argument that the special condition was inappropriate by failing to object previously. Eskenazi argued that the case was frivolous and therefore it was entitled to appellate attorney fees.
“Eskenazi’s appellate brief is entirely devoted to devising legal avenues so as not to address the merits of M.L.’s appeal,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the majority joined by Judge Edward Najam. “However, all of these contentions fail due to an apparent misunderstanding of the legal mechanics of objection and waiver.”
Riley wrote this was the rare case where potential mootness is trumped. “Because this is an issue of great public importance that is likely to recur and for which Indiana case law is practically undeveloped, we will address it here.
“… During Dr. Patel’s testimony, it was incumbent upon Eskenazi to elicit sufficient evidence with respect to the particularities of its request and its reason to impose the challenged special condition. There was nothing for M.L. to object to, and M.L. was not under a burden to present evidence as to the special condition’s necessity. Silence was indeed M.L.’s best strategy here,” Riley wrote.
As there was insufficient evidence to support the special condition — Patel testified M.L. didn’t use drugs or alcohol — the COA instructed the trial court to remove the special condition from the order of commitment.
The majority took Eskenazi to task for asking for appellate attorney fees for an appeal the hospital deemed frivolous or in bad faith.
“Rather than being permeated with meritlessness or bad faith, M.L.’s appeal is an entirely proper exercise of his constitutional rights to due process and appellate review, based on established precedent of this court,” the majority held, citing similar rulings in Golub v. Giles, 814 N.E.2d 1034 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), trans. denied, and M.M. v. Clarian Health Partners, 826 N.E.2d 90 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), trans. denied.
“Moreover, we are taken aback with Eskenazi’s request for appellate attorney’s fees to be assessed against another arm of the same Marion County government. The Marion County Public Defender and Eskenazi serve a similar clientele — the most indigent and vulnerable in our community — and both are a vital part of that same public safety net for Marion County. To seek a financial retribution from the Public Defender Agency for protecting involuntarily committed individuals’ constitutional rights based on Eskenazi’s own misunderstanding of the legal mechanics of objection and waiver is remarkable. We deny Eskenazi’s request,” the majority wrote.
Judge Cale Bradford dissented and would affirm the trial court, finding M.L. waived any challenge by failing to object earlier. “M.L. had ample opportunity to object to the imposition of the special condition but did not do so at the trial court level,” Bradford wrote. “If M.L. had objected, I believe it is near certain that Eskenazi would have simply asked Dr. Patel if drugs or alcohol could interfere with M.L.’s prescribed medications, and she would have answered in the affirmative.”
The case is In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of: M.L. v. Eskenazi Health/Midtown Mental Health CMHC, 49A02-1612-MH-2823.