Justices remand appeal of moot commitment order, clarify precedent on public-interest exception in commitment cases

Despite her involuntary commitment order having long since expired, a woman will be permitted to challenge the order at the Court of Appeals of Indiana after the Indiana Supreme Court issued a decision clarifying its precedent on how appellate courts should review involuntary commitment cases that have become moot. A dissenting justice, however, repeated previous concerns about the majority’s approach to the public-interest mootness exception.

The case of E.F. v. St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center, Inc. d/b/a St. Vincent Stress Center, 22S-MH-194, is directly tied to the Indiana Supreme Court’s previous decision in T.W. v. St. Vincent Hospital and Healthcare Center, Inc., 121 N.E.3d 1039, 1042 (Ind. 2019), reh’g denied. In T.W., the justices held that “temporary commitment appeals should be, as a rule, dismissed as moot, though in rare circumstances a question of great public importance may justify not dismissing the otherwise moot appeal.”

Mootness was at issue in the instant case, in which E.F. was taken to the St. Vincent Stress Center during a manic episode. St. Vincent applied for emergency detention of E.F., and the Marion Superior Court entered an involuntary temporary commitment order after finding her gravely disabled.

E.F. appealed, but her commitment order expired while the appeal was pending. Thus, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal, “interpreting T.W. to create a rule that the merits of moot temporary commitment appeals should be reviewed only in ‘rare circumstances.’”

Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented from the COA’s dismissal, writing in November 2021 that T.W. did not alter the “well-established doctrine” of reviewing temporary involuntary commitments “notwithstanding their mootness under the public-interest exception.”

Likewise, in a Monday per curiam opinion granting transfer, the majority justices held that “T.W. does not signal that appellate courts should rarely address the merits of appeals for expired temporary commitment orders.”

“Too much has been read into our narrow approach in T.W.,” the per curiam opinion says. “… Our decision to reach some, but not all, of the issues in T.W. should not be read to discourage merits consideration of appeals from expired temporary commitment orders.”

The majority pointed to In re Commitment of J.B., 766 N.E.2d 795, 798 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), In re Commitment of M.Z., 829 N.E.2d 634, 637 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), and M.L. v. Eskenazi Health/Midtown Mental Health CMHC, 80 N.E.3d 219, 222 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), as examples of the Court of Appeals considering the merits of involuntary commitment cases despite finding them moot. The majority justices said they did not disapprove of that practice, but it was also not required given that “one of the hallmarks of a moot case is the court’s inability to provide effective relief … .”

“In an appeal from an expired temporary commitment order, the appellate court should thoughtfully and thoroughly consider whether the case is moot and whether the public-interest exception to mootness should apply,” the majority held. “Parties appealing in those cases should avail themselves of the opportunity to raise relevant issues, including any reasonable challenge to mootness or argument that an exception to mootness applies.

“Here, finding that E.F. should have the opportunity to make these arguments before the Court of Appeals, we remand for the Court of Appeals to consider any arguments the parties may have about mootness and the public-interest exception.”

Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justices Steven David, Mark Massa and Christopher Goff concurred with the majority opinion, but Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented, writing separately that he would either deny transfer or summarily affirm the COA’s dismissal of E.F.’s appeal.

“The problem with our disposition today is that the Court applies a broader mootness exception than I believe is consistent with our constitution’s structural limits on judicial power,” Slaughter wrote, pointing to his dissent in Seo v. State, 148 N.E.3d 952 (Ind. 2020).

“Unlike the Court, I would adopt the bright-line rule that a court can decide an expired commitment case only if the patient shows an actual controversy remains — because, for instance, specific adverse consequences arising from the commitment are likely to affect the patient in the future,” the dissent continued. “On this record, E.F. failed to make that case.”

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