Zinermon v. Burch,
494 U.S. 113 (1990)
Key Issue: "[T]he very nature of mental illness makes it forseeable that a
person needing mental health care will be unable to understand any proferred 'explanation
and disclosure of the subject matter' of the forms that person is asked to sign, and will
be unable to make 'knowing and wilful decision' whether to consent to admission."
In providing by law that a mental patient must give
informed consent to hospitalization but then failing to make provision for the patient's
competence to be examined at admission, Florida predictably violated the patient's rights.
Florida's established procedure for involuntary placement needs to be applied "to all
patients who cannot be admitted voluntarily, both those who are unwilling and those who
are unable to give consent."
In December 1981 Darrell Burch was wandering along a
Florida highway, bruised, bloodied and disoriented. A good Samaritan picked him up and
took him to a private mental health center in Tallahassee which, finding that he was
suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and in need of longer term treatment, several days
later transferred him to Florida State Hospital. At both the center and the hospital Burch
signed voluntary admission and consent-to-treatment forms. He remained in the hospital for
five months. Shortly after his release, Burch filed a complaint, stating he had been
inappropriately commmitted, and did not remember signing any admission or treatment forms.
The complaint reached the Florida Human Rights Advocacy Committtee which encouraged Burch
to proceed with his grievance.
In February 1985 Burch filed a section 1983 lawsuit in
federal district court against both Apalachee Community Mental Health Services (the
community mental health center in Tallahassee to which he was first taken) and Florida
State Hospital. He argued that his constitutional rights had been violated when he was
treated as a voluntary patient: because of evidence that his mental condition made him
incapable of giving voluntary consent, he was entitled to the procedural safeguards of the
involuntary placement procedure.
Until it reached the Supreme Court, the case would center
on a procedural question: did Burch have the right to bring a section 1983 lawsuit?
Section 1983 gives plaintiffs in civil rights cases direct access to the federal courts
but previous legal decisions have established that certain conditions must be met:
plaintiffs do not have such access when l)their complaints are trivial 2)the official
actions complained of are in the nature of random negligence and (3) the state provides
adequate "predeprivation" remedies or, due to the nature of the injurious
actions, can only provide adequate remedies after the injury has occurred. Burch did not
challenge Florida's law which stipulated that a candidate for voluntary admission to a
mental hospital give his "express and informed consent." His contention was that
both the hospital (and the community mental health center, which was later dropped from
the suit) had wilfully and wantonly failed to follow the law. Both the federal district
court and the Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Burch's suit on the grounds that the
State of Florida gave plaintiffs like Burch an opportunity to obtain justice in the state
court through its tort liability law and this was the only possible option because the
violation alleged was unauthorized and random, i.e. one the state could not predict.
But the Circuit Court of Appeals then took the unusual step
of rehearing the case -- this time "en banc" with a full complement of thirteen
judges as distinct from the three member panel which had made the initial decision. A
divided court (8-5) now reversed itself: Burch's Section 1983 lawsuit was proper and the
substance of his claims would have to be considered by a federal court. At this point the
State of Florida appealed. Under the name of Dr. Zinermon, Burch's treating
physician at the state hospital, it petitioned for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which
handed down its decision in Zinermon v. Burch in February 1990.
A divided Supreme Court (5-4) endorsed the decision of the
Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling that Burch was entitled to bring suit under section 1983.
Writing for the majority, Judge Blackmun noted that Florida's law explicitly requires the
patient to give "express and informed consent" and that "the very nature of
mental illness makes it forseeable that a person needing mental health care will be unable
to understand any proferred 'explanation and disclosure of the subject matter' of the
forms that person is asked to sign, and will be unable to make a 'knowing and wilful
decision' whether to consent to admission." Yet, wrote Judge Blackmun, Florida
statutes "do not direct any member of the facility staff to determine whether a
person is competent to give consent, nor to initiate the involuntary placement procedure
for every incompetent patient." The state's violation of the duty to investigate the
patient's competence to sign admission forms was therefore "fully predictable"
(i.e. not a "random, unauthorized" violation of state law the state could not
"predict or avert" as the state contended) and state officials could be found
liable, if at trial they had failed to make the required examination of his capacity to
give informed consent.
The decision went further. Relatively few states have
Florida's provision that the voluntary patient must give "express and informed
consent" for hospitalization. But the Court suggested that regardless of whether or
not a state had a law with language similar to that of Florida, the admitting facility
might need to examine the patient's competence to consent. In a footnote, the Court
observed: "The characteristics of mental illness thus create special problems
regarding informed consent. Even if the state usually might be justified in taking at face
value a person's request for admission to a hospital for medical treatment, it may not be
justified in doing so, without further inquiry, as to a mentally ill person's request for
admission and treatment at a mental hospital." And in the body of the decision Judge
Blackmun wrote: Florida already has an established procedure for involuntary placement.
The problem is only to enforce that this procedure is afforded to all patients who cannot
be admitted voluntarily, both those who are unwilling and those who are unable to give
Judge Blackmun's opinion for the majority potentially
undercuts the voluntary treatment system which has increasingly characterized care for the
mentally ill. In the early 1960s the vast majority of patients were hospitalized
involuntarily. Today, as a result of what have generally been viewed as desirable reforms,
73% of the 1.6 million annual admissions (including to private hospitals) are voluntary.
Yet Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of the law and psychiatry program at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School, has noted that what little research there is on the
capacities of patient to consent suggest that a large majority of presently voluntary
patients have questionable capacity to make their own treatment decisions. If two-thirds
had difficulty making competent decisions, that would mean 800,000 patients who would have
to go through, in the words of the Supreme Court decision, the "established procedure
for involuntary placement," overwhelming that system. Moreover, many currently
voluntary patients might not be eligible for involuntary commitment, failing to meet the
Concerned about this potential impact of the decision, the
American Psychiatric Association established a task force to come up with a policy for
complying with the Zinermon decision without disrupting the present largely voluntary
system of care: its conclusions were approved by the APA's board of trustees in December
1992. The task force recommended a brief in-hospital clinical assessment of capacity based
on easy-to-meet substantive standards: the patient need only understand he was being
admitted to a psychiatric hospital and "by verbal, written, or behavioral actions,
express agreement with the admission decision." Following up on this, some states
have altered procedures to require some indication of capacity before accepting voluntary
hospitalization, e.g. Massachusetts now provides a form on which the admitting physician
is required to certify that the patient can understand that he is coming into the hospital
for treatment, and that there may be limitations on his ability to leave -- the key items
in the APA's Task Force Report on Consent to Voluntary Hospitalization.
Given its explosive potential, the Zinermon decision has
not had much impact. In part this was because the Supreme Court decision had referred to
the need for "an inquiry" into the patient's capacity to give informed consent,
without spelling out procedures or going into detail on the substance of informed consent.
The APA task force, by making the criteria for showing capacity to consent to
hospitalization so easy, made even severely psychotic people eligible. (Psychiatric
records showed that Burch had believed he was "in heaven" at the time of his
hospital admission, which was taken as a particularly compelling indication that he was
incompetent to give consent to admission. Presumably, under the APA guidelines, if Burch
said he was in heaven and the admitting clinician explained no, he was in a hospital, and
Burch nodded, he too would have met the requirement for capacity.) Another factor in
limiting Zinermon's impact has been that the decision has not been enthusiastically
embraced, i.e. followed up with more lawsuits in the same vein, by the mental health bar,
which has no desire to dismantle the largely voluntary system of care and to return to the
days when involuntary commitment was the norm. However, while the APA may have achieved
damage control, the obvious danger is that in establishing liberal competency standards so
as to permit voluntary patients to obtain treatment, the APA will pave the way for civil
libertarian mental health advocates to demand equivalent easy competency standards for
involuntary patients to refuse treatment.
There is a sense in which the Zinermon decision was
logically inevitable: it was an "but-the-emperor-has-no-clothes" response to the
fictions underpinning our mental health law since the 1960s. Reforms of that era sought to
encourage voluntary treatment (e.g. assumed patients to be competent so they kept all
their civil rights) while discouraging involuntary commitment (requiring the patient to
meet the dangerousness standard, setting up a host of procedural roadblocks). But given
the nature of mental illness, as the Supreme Court rightly noted, a great many patients,
like Burch, at the time of hospital admission are not "competent" as that term
is normally defined. By pointing up the fallacy of the mental health system in assuming
competence where it does not exist, the Supreme Court exposed the well-intentioned sham
underlying the "reformed" mental health system.
What the Zinermon decision demonstrates is the need to end
the dichotomy between the standard for voluntary and involuntary treatment.
Currently, in many states, voluntary patients can be treated because they need treatment,
involuntary patients only because they are dangerous. This was the whole basis of Burch's
suit, and Justice Blackmun referred to it in his opinion for the majority. In suggesting
that a patient unable to give truly informed consent be required to undergo involuntary
commitment procedures, Justice Blackmun noted that such persons will "not necessarily
meet the statutory standard for involuntary placement" and "it is at least
possible that if Burch had had an involuntary hearing, he would not have been found to
meet the statutory standard for involuntary placement, and would not have been confined at
Florida State Hospital." In other words, Burch was so much sicker than the normal
voluntary patient -- so psychotic, disoriented, and delusional -- he might well have been
entitled to his "freedom!" The suit really points up the absurdity of the law in
failing to provide a common "need for treatment" standard applicable to the
mentally ill regardless of their mode of hospital admission.
A final note: Even the issue of Burch's competency was not
as clear-cut as it appeared in the Supreme Court decision. In the lower courts, the
hospital had never filed an answer to Burch's complaint, never contested his allegations,
merely made a procedural bid to dismiss the case. As a result, as Justice Blackmun
noted in his decision, for purposes of reviewing the case, "the factual allegations
of Burch's complaint are taken as true." Burch maintained that he had been
"seized," "confined and imprisoned" against his will, and subjected
"to involuntary commitment and treatment for a period from December 10, 1981 to May
7, 1982." And he produced hospital records describing him as psychotic, confused,
hallucinating and disoriented. But if the case had gone to trial matters might not have
seemed so simple. Burch signed another authorization of treatment form two weeks after his
admission -- did he still think he was "in heaven" after two weeks of treatment?
More telling, Burch returned voluntarily from two weekend furloughs with his family in the
period from December to May throwing into doubt the description of himself as
"confined and imprisoned" for five months. Perhaps in recognition of the
weakness of the case, it was settled shortly after the Supreme Court decision for a mere
$35,000, including damages, costs and attorney fees. (Besides, how had Burch been damaged?
A very sick man, he had been restored to health in the span of a few months by the
hospital he sued.)
Note: This analysis draws in part on Rael Jean Isaac and
Samuel Jan Brakel's essay on the Zinermon case "Subverting Good Intentions: A Brief
History of Mental Health Law 'Reform'" Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Fall