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In re Petition of J.M.Y.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

October 15, 2019


          ARGUED: April 9, 2019

          Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered February 14, 2018 at No. 1323 WDA 2015, vacating the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County entered March 10, 2015 at No. CC 1419 of 2014 and remanding.



          TODD JUSTICE

         In this appeal brought by the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP"), we address whether the lower courts had jurisdiction to consider the challenge by Appellee J.M.Y. to his certification for involuntary mental health treatment pursuant to Section 303 of the Mental Health Procedures Act ("MHPA")[1], where his challenge was brought two years later under the Uniform Firearms Act.[2] Concluding that the lower courts lacked jurisdiction, we reverse the order of the Superior Court.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         The following salient facts were established at the trial court hearing on Appellee's 2014 petition to vacate and expunge his mental health treatment records, which was held on January 8, 2015 ("Expungement Hearing"). In the autumn of 2012, Appellee, a resident of Blair County, Pennsylvania, was enrolled as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. N.T. Expungement Hearing, 1/8/15, at 27. On September 22, 2012, Appellee attended a fraternity party at which he consumed alcoholic beverages. Appellee recalled that he subsequently left the party after being informed by some of the fraternity members that the allegedly dour countenance he exhibited while walking about campus made them reluctant to accept him as a member of their fraternity. Id. at 29. Sometime thereafter, he encountered University of Pittsburgh police officers who were answering a call from their emergency dispatch center that there was an intoxicated individual attempting to harm himself outside of one of the residence halls of the university.

         Four police officers responded to the call, and, on arriving at the location mentioned in the dispatch, noticed Appellee, who began to walk away from them despite their request that he stop. Id. at 49. The officers pursued, and one of the responding officers, Sergeant Andrew Redman, testified that he tackled Appellee from behind due to his concern that Appellee might still be in possession of an instrumentality which he may have used to harm himself. Sergeant Redman also related that, once Appellee was on the ground, he spat at the officers, and that he became angry and uncooperative after being handcuffed. Id. at 52. Sergeant Redman additionally recounted that Appellee appeared to be intoxicated, had sustained superficial cuts to his arm and wrist area, and that other officers found a small knife attached to a money clip on the ground near Appellee. Id. at 51, 53.

         Sergeant Redman transported Appellee to Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, from which Appellee was transferred to a nearby psychiatric treatment facility, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic ("WPIC"). Id. at 50. Sergeant Redman filled out a petition requesting an involuntary emergency examination pursuant to Section 302 of the MHPA[3] to determine if Appellee was severely mentally disabled and in need of emergency treatment.[4] Id. at 6, 54-55. After examination, the treating physician opined that Appellee was severely mentally disabled and in need of emergency treatment; thus, in accordance with Section 302, Appellee was involuntarily committed for treatment at WPIC.

         Two days later, on September 24, 2012, pursuant to Section 303(a) of the MHPA, [5]Appellee's attending psychiatrist at WPIC applied for certification of an extended 20-day period of involuntary commitment and treatment for Appellee. Although Section 303(b) requires the holding of a hearing on the application before a mental health review officer or a judge at the facility in which the involuntarily committed person is being housed within 24 hours of the application having been filed, and also directs that counsel be appointed to represent the person at that hearing, see 50 P.S. § 7303(b), the evidence adduced from the certified record in this matter is equivocal as to whether these mandatory requirements were met.

         In this regard, at the Expungement Hearing, a "Certification" dated September 25, 2012, and executed by Mental Health Review Officer Robert Zunich, was entered as an exhibit and described. The first portion of this Certification stated that a hearing was held on the Section 303 petition, at which Appellee was present and represented by the Office of Public Defender. Incongruously, however, the form also contained a notation that the patient did not attend the hearing. N.T. Expungement Hearing, 1/8/15, at 20. The Certification directed that Appellee receive outpatient treatment for 20 days. Id. at 11.

         For his part, Appellee testified at the Expungement Hearing that he never attended any hearing or conference before the hearing officer who was considering the Section 303 certification application, nor was he ever advised by anyone that such a hearing was to be held on September 25, 2012. Id. at 33-35. Appellee did recall that he was told by the head nurse on his floor that "they were going to try to make me stay for another 20 days," and that the nurse allegedly cautioned him "not to comply with the doctor or the public defender or anybody else who tried to get [him] to sign any documents." Id. at 32-33. Appellee recounted that he followed that admonition and refused to sign forms presented to him by the doctor and the public defender on the morning of September 25, 2012. Id.

         Appellee additionally denied ever having been furnished a copy of the Certification, stipulating to any facts contained therein, or agreeing to any plan of mental health treatment. Id. at 35-36. All that Appellee could recall was that he was told on the morning of September 25, 2012 that he could collect his things and go home. Id. at 36. Appellee claims to have never received any discharge summary or treatment instructions from WPIC. Id.

         The public defender whose initials appeared on the Certification, Ernest Simon, Esq., also appeared at the Expungement Hearing. Id. at 16. Simon related that he did not specifically recall Appellee, but he attributed that to the sheer volume of clients - 50, 000 - he has handled over the span of his career. Id. After reviewing the Certification and other items of record, Simon concluded that Appellee did not attend the hearing, but Simon stated that he, nevertheless, would have spoken with Appellee. Id. at 17. Simon noted that, as a general practice, WPIC and its parent entity UPMC preferred not to discharge patients who had been involuntarily committed for liability purposes, so they would rather have a hearing officer make the final decision regarding release. Id. Further, if a witness was unavailable, WPIC's custom was to refile the petition, resulting in the patient remaining confined until the next hearing date; thus, if the treating physician and the hearing officer thought the patient would not be a danger to himself or others, reaching a stipulation allowed the patient to go home without having to wait in the hospital until the next hearing. Id. at 17-19. Simon also explained that, whenever a stipulated plan of outpatient treatment was agreed to by all parties as a condition for a patient's immediate release, it was the practice of the hearing officer to require that the patient enter into an agreement to continue outpatient care under a Section 303 involuntary commitment order. Id.

         Appellee was, in fact, discharged from WPIC on September 25, 2012. Curiously, as recounted at the Expungement Hearing, his discharge papers noted that he was "discharged to home with his parents after winning his 303 hearing on 9/25/12 after police did not show up." Id. at 36. In this regard, Sergeant Redman testified at the Expungement Hearing that he had no recollection of being informed of any Section 303 hearing requiring his attendance. Id. at 54-55. Thereafter, and as we will discuss further below, Appellee did not petition the court of common pleas for review of the Certification, as permitted by Section 303(g) of the MHPA.[6]

         Over two years later, on November 24, 2014, Appellee filed a "Petition to Vacate and Expunge Involuntary Civil Commitment," alleging, broadly, "that there was no lawful basis for his commitment, which was effectuated through flawed procedures pursuant to Section 302 and 303 of the [MHPA]." Petition to Vacate, 11/24/14, at ¶ 12. More specifically, he claimed that his involuntary commitment under Section 302 of the MHPA was unlawful because it was not supported by adequate medical findings, and that he was denied his procedural due process rights because he was not afforded a hearing before being involuntarily committed. Id. at ¶¶ 24, 29. Appellee asserted that the maintenance of his commitment records served as bar to his lawful ownership and possession of a firearm under Pennsylvania and federal law.[7] Id. at ¶¶ 23, 28. He contended that these prohibitions, in turn, prevented him from realizing his career objective of becoming a law enforcement officer. Id. at ¶ 37. Appellee averred that these claims for relief "are based on the Court's inherent authority to remedy the affects [sic] of ¶awed commitment procedures, the statutory authority given Court's [sic] to craft appropriate relief pursuant to [Section] 6105(f)(1)[8] and 6111.1(g)(2)[9] [of the Uniform Firearms Act] and the available remedies for the violations of [his] constitutional and civil rights." Id. at ¶ 16. Appellee requested that the trial court vacate his initial commitment of September 21, 2012, as well as order the expungement of all of his commitment records in the possession of treatment facilities and public agencies.

         As indicated above, the trial court, by the Honorable John A. Zottola, conducted the Expungement Hearing on this petition on January 8, 2015, and, on March 10, 2015, he entered an order denying Appellee's expungement petition.[10] In his opinion prepared pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a), Judge Zottola noted that Appellee's reliance on 18 Pa.C.S. § 6111.1(g)(2) was misplaced because that section did not allow a petitioner to obtain expungement of mental health records where the commitment was pursuant to Section 303 of the MHPA. Trial Court Opinion, 10/17/15, at 2 (citing In re Jacobs, 15 A.3d 509 (Pa. Super. 2011) (holding that trial court had no jurisdiction under 18 Pa.C.S. § 6111.1(g) to consider a petition to expunge records of an individual's involuntary commitment under Section 303 filed five years after commitment order was entered)). Judge Zottola observed that the Superior Court in In re Jacobs had also determined that the "heightened due process requirements" afforded by Section 303 insured that the earlier commitment under Section 302 was valid; thus, he proceeded to examine whether the evidence was sufficient to establish that "the due process requirements of a Section 303 commitment were sufficiently met with regard to [Appellee]." Id. at 2-3.

         Judge Zottola determined that the application for Appellee's involuntary commitment under Section 303 was timely and properly filed, and that the application contained an attestation by the attending psychiatrist that Appellee was informed that this commitment action was being taken. Judge Zottola also found that the Certification established that a hearing was held on September 25, 2012, which comported with the requirements of Section 303(b) of the MHPA that a hearing be held within 24 hours of the filing of an involuntary commitment petition. Judge Zottola observed that Appellee's absence from the hearing was noted in the Certification, which he viewed as demonstrating "that the matter was uncontested and resolved by stipulation," id. at 3, and further noted that Section 303 did not require that Appellee be actually present at the hearing. Judge Zottola ultimately concluded that, because the procedural requirements of Section 303 were met, Appellee's involuntary commitment under this section was valid, and Appellee was not entitled to expungement of his treatment records.

          Appellee appealed to the Superior Court. A panel of that court initially affirmed the trial court's order in a divided unpublished memorandum opinion. See In re J.M.Y., 1323 WDA 2015 (Pa. Super. filed Nov. 16, 2016). Subsequently, however, the full court granted reargument of that decision before an en banc panel, which issued a divided published opinion reversing the order of the trial court. See In re J.M.Y., 179 A.3d 1139 (Pa. Super. 2018) (en banc).[11]

         The court began its analysis with a discussion of In re Ryan, 784 A.2d 803 (Pa. Super. 2001) (concluding that, because an individual who was involuntarily committed under Section 303 did not receive his informal hearing on the commitment petition within 24 hours as required by Section 303(b), nor, after he petitioned the court of common pleas for review of his certification by the mental health review officer under Section 303(g), did he receive a hearing in that court within 72 hours as that provision required, his due process rights were violated, which necessitated vacating the Section 303 commitment order and expunging his treatment records). The majority viewed In re Ryan as establishing the proposition that, whenever the procedures set forth in the MHPA are not followed in a Section 303 commitment proceeding, the involuntarily committed person has been denied due process, and the commitment must be vacated as well as the records thereof destroyed.

         The majority acknowledged the holding of In re Jacobs, cited by the trial court, that, once a person has been committed under Section 303, this forecloses judicial review of the Section 302 commitment; however, it interpreted In re Ryan as establishing an exception to this general principle for situations where the due process rights of the involuntarily committed individual were violated. Thus, the majority reasoned that, whenever a Section 303 commitment does not furnish adequate due process to the involuntarily committed person, In re Jacobs does not preclude the vacation of that individual's Section 302 commitment and expungement of his or her treatment records.

         The court then recited the language of Sections 303(c)-(g) of the MHPA, and concluded that, based on its review of the certified record in this matter, "the certification was not proper and, therefore, the Section 303 commitment was not valid." In re J.M.Y., 179 A.3d at 1145. The court highlighted the fact that Appellee testified that he was unaware that the Section 303 commitment hearing would be held on September 23, 2012, the testimony of his public defender that Appellee did not attend the hearing, the testimony of Sergeant Redman that he did not appear at such a hearing, and the notation in the Certification that Appellee did not appear at the hearing.

         The court also noted how, in its view, the Certification did not meet the requirements of Section 303(d) because it did not contain any explanation of Appellee's right to appeal to the court of common pleas under Section 303(g), nor an explanation of his right to continuing representation by counsel in pursuing such an appeal. Also, the majority pointed out that there was no evidence Appellee was ever served with the Certification as required by Section 303(e), and it called attention to the statement in the discharge summary that Appellee "won" his Section 303 hearing as further evidence the Certification was not valid. Accordingly, because it concluded Appellee's due process rights were violated, "fundamental fairness" required his Section 303 commitment be expunged. Id. at 1148-49.

         The court further concluded that, because Appellee had also challenged the validity of his Section 302 petition, and the trial court never ruled on that question, given its conclusion that the Section 303 Certification was not valid, it was necessary to remand the matter to the trial court so that, in addition to expunging the records of Appellee's Section 303 commitment, it could hold a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to support Appellee's Section 302 commitment.

         Judge Olson dissented. She began by observing that caselaw from the Superior Court, such as In re Jacobs, supra, held that 18 Pa.C.S. § 6111.1(g), which Appellee relied upon in his petition, did not allow an individual to seek expungement of a commitment and accompanying mental health records obtained under Section 303. Judge Olson noted that Section 6111.1(g)(2) allows a trial court to review the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a Section 302 commitment and to expunge those records, but it does not confer on a trial court that same power with respect to a commitment under Section 303.

         Judge Olson criticized the majority for failing to explain what other statutory authority gave any court, including the Superior Court, the jurisdiction to review the sufficiency of a Section 303 commitment which had become final over two years prior, as, from her perspective, no such statutory source existed. Judge Olson observed that Section 303(g) did give Appellee the right to appeal his Certification to the court of common pleas; however, because our Court has ruled that such a certification constitutes a final adjudication from which an appeal must be taken within 30 days, see In re K.L.S., 934 A.2d 1244 (Pa. 2007), and 42 Pa.C.S. § 5571, Appellee had until October 25, 2012 to appeal his Certification to the court of common pleas, which he did not. Thus, in Judge Olson's view, the trial court had no jurisdiction to entertain Appellee's instant petition for relief, as it was filed well beyond that date. Correspondingly, Judge Olson concluded that the trial court's lack of jurisdiction to review the Section 303 certification, which was, thus, still extant, also precluded the trial court from reviewing the Section 302 certification. Hence, she would have affirmed the trial court's order dismissing Appellee's petition.

         PSP[12] filed a petition for allowance of appeal of the en banc Superior Court's decision and order, which we granted with respect to the following issue:

Did the Pennsylvania Superior Court err when it exercised jurisdiction to review a commitment under 50 P.S. ยง 7303, when no timely appeal was filed, and the challenge was brought years later under the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms ...

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