Without a ruling on the merits, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision (PDF) Thursday dismissing the case of a former Washington lawyer protesting the city's decision to involuntarily hospitalize her after displaying signs of mental illness.
After neighbors reported to police that Theodora Charles was acting erratically and threatening violence, she was hospitalized in April 2009. Charles then agreed to remain in treatment voluntarily, only to have her doctors convert her status several days later to that of an involuntary patient when they believed her condition was deteriorating.
Charles, represented by Laurie Davis of the city’s Public Defender Service, appealed. In briefs and before the court on Sept. 8, Davis argued that under the Ervin Act – the city’s law guiding civil commitment of the mentally ill – the city could not convert Charles from a voluntary to involuntary patient without more proof that she presented an immediate danger to herself or others.
The city’s Office of the Attorney General countered that doctors did believe Charles might be dangerous if released, and also that Davis was arguing for too high of a standard. The city had also maintained that because there was a good chance that Charles was on the verge of release, doctors had to act.
The three-judge panel found that Charles’ appeal was moot. She was released from a city hospital several weeks after she was first committed in 2009, so the court found that she had already received the relief she wanted. The judges also wrote that there was no evidence on the record to support Davis’ claim that the city's handling of Charles' case could have a chilling effect on other patients considering voluntary treatment in the future.
Towards the end of the four-page memorandum opinion, the judges also noted that Charles’ case pre-dated another similar case decided in December 2009, In re Peterson. In that
case (PDF), the court laid out the circumstances where a patient could be converted from voluntary to involuntary status, so the judges in Charles’ case wrote that this is not an issue that would escape judicial review in the future.
The attorney general’s office, through spokesman Ted Gest, declined to comment. A representative of the public defender’s office could not immediately be reached.
Chief Judge Eric Washington and judges John Fisher and Inez Smith Reid heard the case.