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VECCHIONE v. WOHLGEMUTH

July 11, 1974

ELVIRA VECCHIONE
v.
HELENE WOHLGEMUTH, Secretary, Department of Public Welfare, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, FRANKLYN R. CLARKE, MD., Superintendent, Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry and ELWOOD N. SHOEMAKER, Revenue Agent, Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BECKER

EDWARD R. BECKER, DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. Preliminary Statement

 This is a civil rights case, arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It deals with the right of patients confined in state mental hospitals in Pennsylvania to control and manage their own property as against: (1) the right of the Commonwealth to summarily seize and control it for the duration of the hospitalization, without prior notice or hearing on the issue of the patient's competency to control that property; and (2) the right of the Commonwealth to appropriate part of the patient's property in satisfaction of the cost of care and maintenance, without prior or subsequent hearing on the correctness of the Commonwealth's assessment.

 The case arises within the framework of sections 424 and 501 of the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966 (Act), 50 P.S. §§ 4424 and 4501. *fn1" Section 501 provides that persons receiving diagnosis, treatment, care and rehabilitation at state mental hospitals are responsible for all costs thereof. Section 424 provides that, as to all persons who are not adjudged incompetent, civilly admitted or committed to a state mental hospital, the revenue agent at the hospital shall, without application to any court, seize any and all possessory property and present entitlements payable to such persons, manage them and appropriate from them for the cost of such person's care and maintenance as assessed by the revenue agent under § 501 of the Act. On the other hand, as to all persons who are adjudged incompetent, *fn2" § 424 requires the revenue agent to turn over all money or property of such persons to their guardians with a full and certified accounting. Payment of any monies to the Commonwealth in satisfaction of its § 501 claims out of the estates of those adjudged incompetent persons must be preceded by prior notice and prior judicial hearing and approval, by virtue of the Incompetents' Estates Act of 1955, 50 P.S. § 3101 et seq. In addition, § 424 requires the Commonwealth to initiate proceedings under the Incompetents' Estates Act of 1955 for appointment of a guardian of the estate, if none exists already, of any patient with assets in excess of $2,500 at the time of their admission to the mental institution. However, patients with $2,500 or less do not receive such an opportunity to have their assets protected by a guardian or court under the Incompetents' Estates Act of 1955.

 Plaintiff contends that § 424 of the Act creates two classes of civilly admitted or committed patients for purposes of Due Process safeguards. One class, composed of all patients who have not been adjudged incompetent, is denied any prior notice or hearing before the Commonwealth takes control of those patients' assets and appropriates part of such assets to satisfy § 501 claims. Another class, composed of adjudged incompetent patients, is afforded both prior notice and hearing before the Commonwealth can seize control of their funds and appropriate them to satisfy § 501 assessments. Section 424 further separates these two classes by requiring the Commonwealth to seek, under the Incompetents' Estates Act of 1955, the appointment of a guardian for patients with assets in excess of $2,500, thereby augmenting the latter class. As to those patients with less than $2,500, however, the Commonwealth does not have to give them the benefit of notice or an opportunity for a hearing on whether they are incompetent, so these patients generally have no guardian or court to protect their assets, thus relegating them to the former, disadvantaged class.

 Plaintiff Elvira Vecchione was, at the time that this action was brought, a patient at the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry (Byberry). She had not been declared incompetent and her assets were less than $2,500. Plaintiff sued in her own behalf and in behalf of all mental patients who are sui juris or are non-adjudged incompetent persons with assets less than $2,500 and who are civilly admitted or committed to Pennsylvania State hospitals for observation, diagnosis, care and treatment, and subject to §§ 424 and 501 of the Act. *fn3" In the prayer of her complaint, plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief and also restitution of the sums withheld by the revenue agent. *fn4" Since the action sought to enjoin enforcement by a state officer of statutes of statewide application, a three-judge court was constituted.

 On March 2, 1973, the District Court, sitting alone, and pursuant to a stipulation of the parties, ordered that temporary relief be afforded plaintiff until the case could be determined by the three-judge court. *fn5" Following a pretrial conference, the parties agreed that, with the exception of the testimony of two psychiatrists, the case could be determined on a stipulated record. A stipulation of facts was thereupon admitted the allegations contained in virtually all the paragraphs of plaintiff's complaint. For the hearing, plaintiff submitted an extensive brief upon the law. The Commonwealth submitted no brief, either before or after trial. For the reasons which follow, we agree with plaintiff's contentions that the provisions of § 424 in question offend the Equal Protection Clause and that as to the disadvantaged class, § 424 of the Act violates procedural Due Process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, the permanent relief requested by plaintiff will be granted. *fn6"

 II. Findings of Fact

 A. The Parties

 Plaintiff, Elvira Vecchione, is a seventy year old widow who is entirely without means of support other than periodic Social Security OASDI benefits and her personal property valued at no more than $500. *fn7" On October 29, 1971, plaintiff was committed by Judge Ned L. Hirsh of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County to Byberry pursuant to § 406 of the Act, 50 P.S. § 4406, as a person in need of observation, care and treatment by reason of mental disability. *fn8"

 Defendant Helene Wohlgemuth is Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, charged with the administration of the mental health and mental retardation program of Pennsylvania, including executive supervision of Byberry. Defendant Franklyn R. Clarke, M.D., is Superintendent of Byberry and is responsible under the Act for the immediate administration and operation of Byberry, including supervision of the office of Revenue Agent at that institution. Defendant Elwood N. Shoemaker is the Revenue Agent at Byberry and charged under §§ 424 and 501 of the Act with assessing liability for the costs of care and maintenance and taking custody of any money or other personal property in the possession of any patient at Byberry, and of any gifts, legacies, pensions, insurance payments, retirement benefits or payments to which any competent patient at Byberry, or any non-adjudged incompetent patient with assets less than $2,500 may be entitled.

 B. The Statute as Applied to Plaintiff

 The plaintiff was confined at Byberry from October 29, 1971, to April 16, 1973. The Commonwealth concedes that she was at all times during her confinement competent to manage her financial affairs. Yet, by virtue of the statute, defendant Shoemaker is required to apply half of the plaintiff's money to maintain a petty cash reserve fund for each patient of up to $500, and uses the other half and any funds in excess of the $500 reserve to pay for the assessed costs, without prior adjudication of liability or attachment proceedings of any kind. In terms of the plaintiff's property, defendant Shoemaker, without notice and hearing or explanation, acting pursuant to §§ 424 and 501, summarily seized and appropriated $1,253.85 of her Social Security OASDI benefits to pay the alleged debt incurred by her for her care and treatment at Byberry. In the same manner, the Commonwealth seized control of an additional $1,356.63 of her Social Security OASDI benefits, and interest thereon, and deprived her of control thereof until her discharge. This $1,356.63 was turned over to plaintiff as follows: $332.39 was returned in cash at the time of discharge; $766.64 was spent by plaintiff ...


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