COA again addresses summarily approved commitment orders, finds timeliness waiver

The Indiana Court of Appeals has once again weighed in on the issue of whether commitment orders approved only summarily by a trial court judge are valid, finding Thursday that a civil commitment litigant waived her challenge of the allegedly defective order by not raising the issue in trial court. The appellate panel also found sufficient evidence to support a finding that the litigant was gravely disabled.

In February 2018, 48-year-old A.M. was in the lobby of an Indianapolis Hampton Inn and exhibiting disorganized behavior and thoughts. After concluding that she needed medical treatment, a law enforcement officer transported A.M. to Community North Hospital, where she was diagnosed as suffering from unspecified schizophrenia spectrum and another psychotic disorder.

The hospital alleged A.M. was dangerous to both herself and others, recommending that she be detained pending the commitment hearing. Further, the tending physician said A.M. refused to take her medication, denied that she suffered from a psychiatric condition and was unable to provide herself with food, clothing and shelter. Thus, Marion Superior Court Commissioner Kelly M. Scanlan ordered the involuntary commitment, and Judge Steven Eichholtz, who did not sign the order, approved the commitment using an “approval order” under a separate cause number.

On appeal, A.M. argued the order was defective because it was signed only by the commissioner, not the judge. In a footnote, Judge Paul Mathias referenced the frequency of that issue.

“This has been a recurring issue in this trial court,” Mathias wrote.

In this case, the panel concluded in In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of A.M., A.M. v. Community Health Network, Inc.,18A-MH-636  that A.M. waived the issue of the order’s effectiveness “by failing to timely object that the commitment order was not signed by the trial judge.”

When the July 1 commitment was ordered, Indiana law expressly barred Scanlan from entering a final appealable order in the case. However, the hospital argued that A.M. waived her challenge to the validity of the commitment order because she did not object to the commitment order before pursuing her appeal.

“… (W)hen a party seeks to object that a magistrate or commissioner, but not the judge, signed the final order, the party must file a motion to correct error or other similar motion before the notice of appeal is filed,” Mathias wrote. “However, this is inconsistent with Trial Rule 59(A) which provides that a motion to correct error is a not a prerequisite for appeal unless the party seeks to address newly discovered material evidence or a claim that a jury verdict is excessive or inadequate.”

The appellate court noted that despite the inconsistency, it must follow precedent and concluded A.M. waived her argument of a defective order. The court reached similar decisions in C.H. v. Options Behavioral Health System, 18A-MH-638, A.L. v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 18A-MH-1147, and D.H. v. Eskenazi Health, 18A-MH-632, and has addressed the propriety of commitment orders signed only by Scanlan in several other cases.

Additionally, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that A.M. was gravely disabled on the basis that she “is admittedly transient and does not have a stable income or shelter.” It also took into account two instances where hospital staff were required to forcibly administer two psychotropic medications to de-escalate A.M.’s behavior during her emergency commitment.

“Under these facts and circumstances, we conclude that the Hospital presented clear and convincing evidence that as a result of her mental illness, A.M. is gravely disabled because she is in danger of coming to harm from her inability to function independently,” Mathias wrote.

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