Appeal of temporary involuntary commitment dismissed, but dissent calls for Supreme Court clarification

A woman’s appeal of her involuntary mental health commitment has been dismissed as moot because she has already been released from commitment. However, the Court of Appeals of Indiana split sharply in the decision, with the dissenting judge calling on the Indiana Supreme Court to clarify recent precedent on how appeals of temporary involuntary commitments should be decided.

The instant commitment case began in June, when the St. Vincent Stress Center in Indianapolis applied for emergency detention and involuntary commitment of E.F., who was allegedly suffering from a psychiatric disorder that prevented her from taking care of herself. In court documents, E.F.’s physician said she was manic and unable to control her diabetes, which had led to gangrene and a toe amputation. E.F. was also described as being paranoid, calling the police and spending large sums of money.

The Marion Superior Court, Probate Division, determined E.F. was gravely disabled and committed her to the stress center for 90 days. The court ordered that she was to be released on Sept. 7 at the latest.

E.F. appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in finding her gravely disabled and ordering her temporary commitment. Although she has already been released, E.F. argued her appeal raised “questions of great public interest that are likely to recur.”

“But, in her brief, E.F. does not identify any questions of great public interest likely to recur,” COA Judge Edward Najam wrote for the majority in In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of E.F. v. St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center, Inc. d/b/a St. Vincent Stress Center, 21A-MH-1332.

The majority, which also included Judge Leanna Weissmann, concluded E.F.’s appeal was moot and declined to reach the merits. The majority judges pointed to T.W. v. State, 121 N.E.3d 1039 (Ind. 2019), which held that “temporary commitment appeals should be, as a rule, dismissed as moot, though in rare circumstances a question of great public important may justify not dismissing the otherwise moot appeal.”

“E.F.’s appeal does not present such a rare circumstance,” Najam wrote.

“Indeed, E.F. ignores T.W. altogether and only mentions the mootness doctrine in a footnote,” the majority held. “… A brief should not only present the issues to be decided on appeal, but it should be of material assistance to the court in deciding those issues. Because E.F. does not argue that this appeal should be decided under any exception to the mootness doctrine, we cannot consider whether any such exception might apply here.”

But in a dissent, Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote that T.W. did not alter the “well-established doctrine” of reviewing temporary involuntary commitments “notwithstanding their mootness under the public-interest exception.”

Specifically, Vaidik pointed to In re Commitment of J.B., 766 N.E.2d 795 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), which held that “[t]he question of how persons subject to involuntary commitment are treated by our trial courts is one of great importance to society.”

“The majority acknowledges our prior application of the public-interest exception to these cases but states that our Supreme Court in T.W. altered this standard to require that the challenging party explicitly show their specific case involves a great public interest,” Vaidik wrote. “But our case law makes clear such argument is not required, and at no point in T.W. does the Court purport to overrule this prior precedent or to establish a new analysis regarding what constitutes a great public interest.

“… Instead, the Court in T.W. addresses a completely different issue: whether a commissioner (as opposed to a judge) lacks the authority to enter a commitment order,” she continued. “T.W. involved a more specific issue of great public interest, and the Court addressed only that issue. That does not mean that J.B. and its progeny have been overruled.”

The majority addressed Vaidik’s dissent, countering that “while these appeals are undoubtedly important to each appellant, to paint the ‘great public importance’ exception with this broad of a brush would eviscerate the exception and require us to address every one of these cases on their merits although they are moot.”

“That approach is contrary to the Court’s holding in T.W. that appeals of temporary commitments are moot unless they involve an issue of great public importance,” Najam wrote for the majority. “And the Court in T.W. addressed only the one issue of great public importance presented in those consolidated appeals and did not address the other issues raised by the appellants, namely, the sufficiency of the evidence to support their commitments.”

Vaidik closed her dissent with a call for the Supreme Court to once again weigh in, saying a split had emerged on the COA as to how to apply T.W.

“This has led to some parties having their claims heard on the merits and others being dismissed without review, dependent entirely on which panel they are assigned,” she wrote. “Clarification from the Supreme Court as to the correct standard for these cases would alleviate these inequitable results.”

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