Involuntary Commitments Orders Don’t Become Moot Merely Because Confinement Has Ended

In re Civil Commitment of C.M., 458 N.J. Super. 563 (App. Div. 2019).  The doctrine of mootness enables courts to avoid disputes that are not “live.”  Today’s opinion by Judge Fisher, in the context of three appeals that pose the same issue involving persons who were involuntarily committed, rightly concluded that those persons, the appellants in this matter, were not barred by mootness from obtaining a ruling vacating the orders under which they were committed.

Each of the three cases came before the same Law Division judge and involved essentially the same facts.  It appeared, as Judge Fisher stated, that the protections of N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.5 and -27.9, which strictly limit the time that a person may be held involuntarily, “were not likely afforded.”  Each appellant moved to vacate his or her involuntary commitment order, but by the time those applications to vacate were considered, the appellant had been released.  The Law Division found in each case that the matter was therefore moot.

Judge Fisher and the panel disagreed.  “The existence of an unlawful commitment order is a matter of public importance and, in light of the circumstances asserted, capable of recurring; yet –if the judge’s rationale for refusing to examine the legitimacy of the commitment orders is acceptable–an aggrieved individual’s ability to challenge an unlawful commitment would repeatedly evade review. Even if there was available, as seems likely, no concrete remedy–other than an order declaring the wrong done –and even if, for that reason, the dispute was technically moot, we conclude the judge still should have ruled on the merits of appellants’ motions to vacate.”  Judge Fisher cited a number of cases where New Jersey courts decided “technically moot matters in this and other similar settings.”

Judge Fisher observed that “bedrock liberty interests are threatened whenever the State seeks an involuntary commitment.”  And there are “practical impacts caused by a judge’s refusal to vacate unlawful or erroneous commitment orders.  An order on the merits might be persuasive or preclusive in a subsequent civil action asserting an alleged wrongful confinement.  Such an order might also effect a later dispute about the responsibility for an unpaid bill for services during the unwarranted confinement.  And such an order might alter future hospitalizations.”  For all those reasons, as well as the fact that this issue would recur but would evade review, the panel declined to apply the normal mootness rule.

The State did not respond either to appellants’ trial court motions or to their appeals, stating in response to the appeals that the State “takes no position.”  Judge Fisher stated that the State’s reaction “suggests its recognition that the temporary commitment orders should not have been entered.”  The State’s posture might also have suggested that the Appellate Division could have disposed of the merits, but the panel deemed it wiser to remand to the Law Division for that purpose.  The Appellate Division retained jurisdiction to consider, on an expedited basis, any appeals that might result from the remand.  It is not a stretch to guess what the outcome of such an appeal might be.