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Reese v. Nelson

decided: May 2, 1979.

PAUL A. REESE, APPELLANT
v.
STANLEY M. NELSON, JOHN AHLFELD, BENJAMIN F. WEAVER, JOHN B. RENGIER, NELVIN L. BITNER, RAYMOND G. HERR, WILLIAM E. CHILLAS, ESQ., CHARLES B. GROVE, JR., ESQ., ROBERT REED, FREDERICK PLOWFIELD, AUGUST J. SCHULTZ, M.D., J. ALBERT SCHULTZ, M.D., ST. JOSEPH'S HOSPITAL



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 74-1653)

Before Hunter and Weis, Circuit Judges, and Stapleton,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

A letter sent to a county official referring to a "well placed bomb" as a way of solving plaintiff's frustration with local government began a series of events leading to his emergency confinement for psychiatric evaluation. Alleging deprivation of constitutional rights, plaintiff brought suit against various officials who participated in the proceedings authorized by the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966. After reviewing the trial record, we conclude that the evidence indisputably establishes a qualified immunity for the defendants which required the entry of directed verdicts for them. Accordingly, we do not meet plaintiff's challenges to the jury instructions and affirm a judgment for the defendants.

Plaintiff Paul Reese was temporarily confined to the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for examination pursuant to the Pennsylvania statute which authorized a limited commitment of a person whose mental condition made him a danger to himself or others. He was discharged after eight days, and later filed suit in the district court against various Lancaster County officials and the examining psychiatrist under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. After a trial, a jury responding to interrogatories found that the defendant psychiatrist and county officials acted in good faith in utilizing legal process to bring the plaintiff to a hearing before a master in the state court. The district court then entered judgment for all the defendants.

Testimony established that on a number of occasions plaintiff sent abusive letters to local governmental officials, protesting what he conceived to be their unwarranted intrusions into citizens' private lives, particularly in the area of community planning. In a letter dated January 20, 1973, addressed to John Ahlfeld, Director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, the plaintiff complained about "unAmerican collectivistic works" and wrote:

"Perhaps you will feel more secure by turning this letter over to the U.S. postal authorities. But I do not see how you can gain much in that direction. By following federal standards in our war against Communists (alleged, probable and even possible), a well placed bomb is the acceptable answer to the problem. And the record of your work identifies you!

More truly than you believe,

Paul A. Reese

P.S. Please be gone by July 1, 1973."

Plaintiff also sent letters to the county commissioners on June 1, 1973, and June 7, 1973, in which he stated that they were "courting disaster," that a judgment that plaintiff would "go away" would be no better than the Department of Defense's evaluation of the Viet Cong, that plaintiff was "beginning to feel like a trapped animal," and was "now desperately appealing for a "cease and desist' from political oppression." Included with the June 1, 1973 letter was a copy of the one dated January 20 addressed to Ahlfeld. Another letter in similar tenor was sent to Ahlfeld on June 13, 1973, stating in part: "(L)et it be known that you are the one who determines your own safety and happiness. . . . You are the one who has attacked and robbed me, and made it necessary for me to devise ways to defend myself." In early June, plaintiff appeared at Ahlfeld's office and engaged in an abusive tirade with the receptionist, stating that "I am the fellow who is going to get (Ahlfeld's) rear end if he is not gone by July 19, or, by the July 1st."

On June 11, 1973, Ahlfeld met with defendant Stanley Nelson, the administrator of the county mental health and retardation program, who had some 17 years experience as a clinical psychiatric nurse in addition to post-graduate training in the field. After reading the letters sent by plaintiff, Nelson and Benjamin Weaver, the county administrator, visited Reese's home and talked to him and his wife. In the course of the conversation, Reese was asked to explain the letter of January 20, 1973 and replied that "the letter states exactly what appears in it." When the two men told plaintiff that Ahlfeld was anxious about his safety, plaintiff stated, "If I were doing the things Mr. Ahlfeld was doing, I would be concerned, too."

Becoming apprehensive about Reese's conversation and demeanor, Nelson decided to secure a court order for a psychiatric examination under § 406 of the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 50, § 4406.*fn1 A hearing was scheduled for the morning of Friday, June 29, 1973, but plaintiff was not notified until about 8:00 A.M. that day, when two deputy sheriffs appeared at his home and escorted him to the courthouse.*fn2 A public defender was assigned to represent the plaintiff at the hearing which began soon after 9:00 A.M. The proceedings could not be concluded, however, because the assigned court reporter was required to attend a criminal trial at 10:00 A.M. and at that hour the hearing was continued.

Nelson and the county solicitor, John Rengier, were concerned about the plaintiff's apparent fixation on the upcoming July 1 date and decided to invoke the emergency commitment procedure of § 405, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 50, § 4405,*fn3 so that the plaintiff could be examined immediately by a psychiatrist. The necessary documents were signed by defendant Raymond Herr, a county commissioner, and the plaintiff was ...


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