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Civil Rights – Mental Health Detainee Can Sue Officers

By: Deborah Elkins//May 10, 2016

Civil Rights – Mental Health Detainee Can Sue Officers

By: Deborah Elkins//May 10, 2016

Goines v. Valley Community Services Board (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-084-16, 31 pp.) (Traxler, J.) No. 15-1589, May 9, 2016; USDC at Harrisonburg, Va. (Dillon, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: A plaintiff with speech and physical difficulties from cerebellar ataxia, who alleged he was advised by a cable television technician to report to police his neighbors’ illegal splicing and theft of his cable service, can sue police for his involuntary six-day detention for a mental health evaluation; however, the 4th Circuit upholds the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the community mental health agency and its employees.

According to his complaint, plaintiff suffers from cerebellar ataxia, a neurological condition that causes him difficulties with his speech, balance and certain fine motor functions. The disorder does not affect plaintiff’s cognitive functioning, and he has no mental health issues.

Incident Report

Whether the district court properly considered the officer’s Incident Report, referenced in plaintiff’s complaint and attached to defendants’ motion to dismiss, is not entirely clear. Although the complaint includes references to the Incident Report, plaintiff’s claims do not turn on, nor are they otherwise based on, statements contained in the Incident Report. The Incident Report arguably is not integral to the complaint and therefore should not have been considered by the district court.

Nonetheless, because plaintiff does not argue otherwise, we will assume without deciding that the Incident Report was integral to the complaint and assume the district court properly treated the Incident Report as if it had been attached to the complaint. The more difficult question is whether the district court properly treated the factual contents of the Incident Report as true. In this case, we think it clear that plaintiff did not adopt the Incident Report as true simply by relying on the Report for some of the facts alleged in his complaint.

Plaintiff’s complaint tells the story of police who assumed from plaintiff’s physical difficulties that he was mentally ill and never actually listened to what plaintiff was telling them; plaintiff referred to portions of the Incident Report to support that theory of the case. Plaintiff alleged the line noise and other problems with his television service occurred when the television was turned on and the officers did not hear the line noises because they never turned on the television. When the complaint is read in the light most favorable to plaintiff and in light of his theory of the case, it is apparent his purpose in quoting from the Incident Report was not to assert the truthfulness of the statements in the Report, but instead to illustrate the mistakes he believed were made by the officers. Because plaintiff did not rely on the Report for its truthfulness, the district court erred by treating as true the factual statements contained in the Report.

When the statements in the Incident Report are treated not as true, but as assertions made by the officers, we have little difficulty in concluding that plaintiff’s claims against the officers should not have been dismissed.

Plaintiff alleged he has no mental illness. Given plaintiff’s allegations that the noise occurred when the TV was on and that the officers never turned on the TV, the only permissible inference to be drawn from the complaint is that plaintiff did not hear noises because the television was never turned on. The facts as alleged in the complaint likewise provided no reasonable basis for the officers to have concluded that plaintiff was a danger to himself or others.

We vacate the district court’s dismissal of the claims against the officers and remand for further proceedings.

Mental Health Employees

Plaintiff’s claims against defendant mental health screeners are based on their Screening Report. Defendant Rhodes observed plaintiff behaving as if he were responding to visual hallucinations, and she had “reasonably trustworthy information” from the officers that plaintiff was suffering from auditory hallucinations as well. In Rhodes’ presence, plaintiff threatened to attack his neighbors when released, and Rhodes was informed by the officers that plaintiff had earlier made similar threats. These facts are sufficient to warrant a prudent man to believe the person poses a danger to himself or others, thus establishing probable cause for the emergency mental-health detention.

We affirm the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against the mental health agency and its employees. However, we vacate the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against two officers.


Niemeyer, J.: I write this brief concurrence only to note that, in determining qualified immunity, we need not recognize only the pleader’s version of the facts stated in the incorporated document if the document is taken to state those facts accurately from the defendants’ point of view, here the officers’ point of view. If the document – here, the Incident Report – were taken to state accurately the officers’ perceptions, we could use those perceptions to determine qualified immunity.

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