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In re Involuntary Hospitalization of C.M.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 10, 2017

In re: Involuntary Hospitalization of C.M.

         Kanawha County 15-MH-1089

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner C.M., by counsel C. Joan Parker, appeals the September 12, 2015, order of the Mental Hygiene Commissioner of Kanawha County ("Commissioner") committing her to a psychiatric hospital upon a finding of probable cause that petitioner was likely to harm herself or others.[1] The State of West Virginia, by counsel Allison Carroll Anderson, filed its response in support of the Commissioner's order. West Virginia Advocates, Inc., as amicus curiae, by counsel Regenia L. Mayne, filed a brief in support of petitioner's appeal. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the Commissioner failed to consider all relevant and reliable evidence, failed to make specific findings of fact before ruling that petitioner was drug addicted and mentally ill, and failed to conclude that West Virginia Code §§ 27-5-1 to -11 is unconstitutionally vague.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, we find that the circuit court erred with respect to its denial of petitioner's motion to alter or amend judgment. For these reasons, a memorandum decision reversing the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In September of 2015, petitioner was transported, by ambulance, to Charleston Area Medical Center ("CAMC") after attempting suicide. Upon admission to the CAMC emergency room, petitioner reportedly told hospital staff that she attempted suicide because she was in "chronic long term pain." Specifically, petitioner stated that she intentionally overdosed on her prescribed insulin for the management of her diabetes earlier in the day and that, if she was sent home, she would attempt suicide again, stating "I will do a better job and not be back."

         A hospital crisis worker filed an application for involuntary custody for mental health examination pursuant to West Virginia Code § 27-5-2. Subsequently, a licensed independent clinical social worker examined petitioner and determined that it was probable that petitioner would engage in additional self-harmful behavior and the probability of harmful behavior required her immediate hospitalization. Following the social worker's determination, the Commissioner held a probable cause hearing and petitioner was appointed counsel. At the hearing, the hospital crisis worker and the social worker both testified that petitioner told them that she attempted suicide, wanted to die, and would attempt suicide again. Petitioner admitted that she was clinically depressed and addicted to prescription Valium. She also testified that she "would welcome death anytime." At the close of the evidence, the Commissioner found probable cause that petitioner was addicted to drugs, a danger to herself, suicidal, mentally ill, and in need of in-patient psychiatric treatment. Upon the Commissioner's probable cause finding, petitioner was involuntarily hospitalized, pursuant to West Virginia Code § 27-5-2, by order entered on September 12, 2015. Following the probable cause hearing and her involuntarily hospitalization, petitioner was treated and released. It is not clear from the record how long petitioner was involuntarily hospitalized or when she was discharged. In January of 2016, petitioner filed the instant direct appeal of her involuntarily hospitalization to this Court pursuant to West Virginia Code § 27-5-5.

         "Where the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review." Syl. Pt. 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995). Similarly, "questions of constitutionality are also subject to de novo review." Syl. Pt. 1, State v. Rutherford, 223 W.Va. 1, 672 S.E.2d 137 (2008). Finally, "[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." W.Va. R. Civ. P. 52(a) (1998).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the Commissioner failed to safeguard her rights and interests when he failed to consider her "lucid and cogent" testimony disputing the claims regarding her mental health, drug addiction, and alleged suicide attempt. West Virginia Code § 27-5-1(b)(1), provides, in part, that "[t]he Commissioner shall safeguard, at all times, the rights and interests of the individual as well as the interests of the state . . . ." Petitioner denies that she told the hospital crisis worker or the social worker that she attempted suicide or was suicidal. Petitioner further claims that, at the time of the probable cause hearing, she was not suicidal.

         West Virginia Code § 27-5-2(f) requires that

[a]t the conclusion of the [probable cause] hearing, the . . ., commissioner . . . shall find and enter an order stating whether or not there is probable cause to believe that the individual, as a result of mental illness or addiction, is likely to cause serious harm to himself or herself or to others.

         According to the record on appeal, the Commissioner heard testimony, as recounted above, and found that petitioner was addicted to medication, was suicidal, and was a danger to herself. As such, the Commissioner made the findings required by West Virginia Code § 27-5-2(f) and his findings were supported by the evidence. Importantly, the Commissioner was entitled to determine the weight and credibility of the testimony before him. State v. Guthrie, 194 W.Va. 657, 669, 461 S.E.2d 163, 175 (1995) (stating that "[a]n appellate court may not decide the credibility of witnesses or weigh evidence as that is the exclusive function and task of the trier of fact."). His determination that the testimony of the hospital crisis worker and the social worker were more credible than petitioner's was within his discretion and supported by the record on appeal. Thus, we find no error in the Commissioner's probable cause finding.

         Petitioner also argues that she was not drug addicted or mentally ill at the time of the probable cause hearing. She contends that the Commissioner's nonspecific findings regarding her mental health and drug addiction failed to reference the factual evidence, as required by West Virginia Code § 27-5-1(b)(1), which provides that the Commissioner "shall make a written report of his or her findings to the circuit court." Essentially, petitioner argues that the Commissioner failed to set forth the "specific facts upon which these findings of probable cause are based." Petitioner also contends that the Commissioner did not listen to or consider her testimony contesting the allegations or her "uncontroverted" testimony that she did not overdose on insulin.

         We find no error in the Commissioner's probable cause order directing petitioner's commitment, as he found that petitioner was suffering from a mental illness and was likely to harm herself. The Commissioner based his finding of mental illness on the following specific facts: petitioner told hospital crisis staff that she attempted suicide; intentionally overdosed on her prescribed insulin; attempted suicide earlier in the day; and would attempt suicide again if she was sent home. Further, a licensed independent clinical social worker examined petitioner and determined that it was probable that she would engage in additional self-harmful behavior. The Commissioner made all of the requisite findings required by West Virginia Code § 27-5-2, which provides that the Commissioner "shall find and enter an order stating whether or not there is probable cause to believe that the individual, as a result of mental illness or addiction, is likely to cause serious harm to himself or herself or to others." The Commissioner found that petitioner was mentally ill and a danger to herself; his findings were based on the testimony of the hospital crisis worker and the social worker regarding their interactions with petitioner. As such, we find no error in the Commissioner's probable cause findings.

         Petitioner also contends that the Commissioner's probable cause finding of addiction departed from the statutory definition of addiction, pursuant to West Virginia Code § 27-1-11, and that there was no evidence to support the finding that she was drug addicted or a danger to herself as a result of addiction. According to West Virginia Code § 27-1-11, addiction is "a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress . . . ." The Commissioner found that petitioner, a former nurse, was addicted based upon on her own admission that she was addicted to prescription Valium and "welcomed death." She further testified that she would go through "Valium withdrawal" if the drug was taken away from her. Based on petitioner's own testimony, the Commissioner did not err in finding that petitioner was drug addicted.

         Next, petitioner argues that the involuntary commitment statutes are unconstitutionally vague because of the collateral consequences petitioner suffered as a result of the finding that she was drug addicted and mentally ill. Petitioner argues that West Virginia Code §§ 27-5-1 to -11 is unconstitutional, notwithstanding the process set ...


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