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COA reverses commitment order, doesn’t address judge’s missing signature

January 14, 2019

An Indiana appellate panel has reversed a man’s involuntary civil commitment on the grounds of insufficient evidence, though the judges sidestepped the issue of whether the commitment order was valid considering it was signed by a commissioner, not a judge. 

Eskenazi Health’s Midtown Community Mental Health filed an application for the emergency detention of C.N. in February 2018, alleging he was gravely disabled and a danger to himself because of his bipolar disorder. Specifically, C.N. has a history of Bipolar Disorder with Psychotic features, but he was not in treatment and had “grandiose delusions of being a special government agent.”

The Marion Superior Court authorized the emergency detention, and Eskenazi then submitted a physician’s statement finding C.N. should be committed because he could not provide food, clothing, shelter or other basic needs for himself. The physician, Dr. Aimee Patel, also said C.N. had lost housing and employment because of his condition. 

Patel then testified at a subsequent commitment hearing that C.N. actually suffered from schizoaffective disorder, while an Indianapolis police detective testified that he had visited C.N.’s home in December 2017 and believed his delusions made him dangerous to the public.   

But for his part, C.N. denied claiming to be a law enforcement or government agent, arguing instead that he was employed and living with his significant other. The trial court ultimately concluded C.N. was gravely disabled, yet noted it did “not find admissible clear and convincing evidence that [C.N.] was a danger to himself or others.” 

The court then granted the petition for C.N.’s regular commitment and ordered him to take all of his medications upon attaining outpatient status. C.N.  appealed in In the Matter of the Commitment of C.N.; C.N. v. Eskenazi Health/Midtown CMHC, 18A-MH-641, arguing there was insufficient evidence to prove he was gravely disabled. 

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed in a Monday opinion, pointing to evidence that C.N. had a job working for a home improvement company and had a home.

“This evidence simply does not support the trial court’s conclusion that C.N. was gravely disabled,” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote for the unanimous panel.

“We further note that although there was testimony that C.N. had an extreme interest in law enforcement and had possessed a plastic BB gun, a gas mask, and a military footlocker, there is no evidence that he was criminally charged in connection with his interest or possessions,” Pyle continued. “The United States Supreme Court has held that, since everyone exhibits some abnormal conduct at one time or another, ‘loss of liberty [through a commitment] calls for a showing that the individual suffers from something more serious than is demonstrated by idiosyncratic behavior.’ Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 426-27 (1979).”

C.N.’s commitment was, thus, reversed and the case remanded for the trial court to vacate the commitment. 
Also, in a footnote, Pyle noted that C.N. also appealed on the grounds that the commitment order was invalid because only the commissioner, not Judge Steven Eichholtz, had signed it. While Pyle agreed that applicable law bars commissioners from entering a final order, the court determined C.N. had waived the issue by noting objecting at any point prior to his appeal. 

“Further, because we reverse the commitment order, we need not address whether there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s forced medication order or whether there was sufficient evidence that C.N. needed to be committed for longer than ninety days,” Pyle continued.

The issue of commissioner-signed commitment orders has frequently come before the Indiana Court of Appeals in recent months, always from Marion Superior Court. The appellate court has been somewhat split on whether that error, alone, should warrant reversal.
 

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