Dangerousness Standard: O'connor v. Donaldson Case Summary - Mental Illness Policy Org
Dangerousness Standard: O’connor v. Donaldson Case Summary2017-02-01T11:12:54+00:00

O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975)

Key Issue:  “capable ofsurviving safely in freedom”


In terms of impact, Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563(1975) is probably the single most important decision in mental health law. It has been used by opponents of involuntary commitment (like the ACLU) to argue that it is unconstitutional to commit an individual involuntarily who is not (imminently) dangerous to himself or others.


Kenneth Donaldson was 34, married with three children, and working in a General Electric defense plant when he had his first episode in 1943.Hospitalized at Marcy State Hospital, he was given 23 electro-shock treatments and resumed normal life. In the mid-1950s he developed paranoid delusions that he was being poisoned.At his parents’ instigation, he was committed to Florida’s Chattahoochee State Hospital in1956. He remained there for fifteen years. Donaldson lacked insight, and steadfastly denying he was ill, refused all treatment once he was hospitalized. He had a high degreeof motivation, persistence and intelligence, and through the years persistently petitionedthe courts for his release.

While he was in Chattahoochee there were repeated offers,both from a halfway house in Minneapolis and a friend of Donaldson’s in Syracuse, toprovide a home and supervision for him.

Donaldson’s own (probably correct) view was that thehospital’s doctors would not release him because he refused to play what he called”the game” of thanking the doctors for making him better. Instead, he adamantlydenied he was or ever had been ill.

The Decision:

The Supreme Court said the case raised “a single,relatively simple, but nonetheless important question concerning every man’sconstitutional right to liberty.”

The key paragraph in the decision reads: “A finding of’mental illness’ alone cannot justify a State’s locking a person up against his will andkeeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement… In short, a state cannotconstitutionally confine without more a nondangerous individual who is capable ofsurviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible familymembers or friends.”


The mental health bar. spearheaded by the ACLU, hasinterpreted this decision to mean that it is unconstitutional to commit for treatment anindividual who is not (imminently) dangerous, and have maintained the individual must beconsidered “capable of surviving safely in freedom” if his life is not inimmediate danger. This interpretation has been important in hampering efforts to implementchanges in commitment law. In a number of states where the law has been broadened toinclude some variation of a “need for treatment” standard, those implementingthe law for the most part still insist the individual meet the “dangerousness”standard. An important reason is that they accept the ACLU’s interpretation of theDonaldson case.

The Donaldson case is also significant because of its rolein determining the outcome of another key case, Wyatt v. Stickney (described elsewhere).This is because, in the lower courts, Donaldson was argued and decided as a “right totreatment” case. Donaldson’s attorney, lawyer-physician-reformer Morton Birnbaum, hadtaken the case as part of his campaign to win court recognition of a “right totreatment,” a concept Birnbaum pioneered, believing it would improve the statehospital system. At the trial level, the judge accepted the “right to treatment”argument (although at this point there was no such thing in law as a right to treatment).The judge instructed the jury it should rule for Donaldson (who was now free but suing twoof his doctors) if it found he was not given such “treatment as will give him arealistic opportunity to be cured or to improve his mental condition.”

The lower court decision in favor of Donaldson was thenappealed to the U.S. District Court of Appeals, which upheld it, the “patient hadconstitutional right to such treatment as would help him to be cured or to improve hismental condition.” That same court had been sitting on Alabama’s appeal of the trialjudge’s decision in Wyatt v. Stickney for two years. It now affirmed the Wyatt decision– which would precipitate massive deinstitutionalization — on the basis ofDonaldson.

In O’Connor v. Donaldson, the Supreme Court, however,deliberately steered clear of the issue of a right to treatment. Chief Justice Burgerobjected that “to condition a State’s power to protect the mentally ill uponproviding of ‘such treatment as will give a realistic opportunity to be cured'”would: make commitment too difficult (what if the individual was incurable?), or too easy(if he were treatable but functioned well in society without treatment).


The Supreme Court decision in Donaldson was a reasonableone, which has been interpreted unreasonably. The Supreme Court had Kenneth Donaldson inmind when it ruled that an individual who was “capable of surviving safely infreedom” by himself or with the help of others could not be confined. Donaldson wasfully capable of living independently, had people who were willing to support him ifnecessary, and posed no danger to himself or others.

The mental health bar argues the individual is”surviving safely” if he is not on the point of death. But mental health lawexpert Paul Stavis, counsel to the New York Commission on Quality of Care, argues that theACLU interpretation of the Donaldson decision is wrong. When it ruled by “survivingsafely in freedom,” the Supreme Court did not have in mind rummaging in garbage cansfor food or lying in the street in one’s own waste. Nowhere in the Donaldson decision didit say that the individual must be permitted to deteriorate to the point he is dangerous.Stavis is convinced a well crafted “need for treatment” statute will surviveSupreme Court scrutiny (and hopes a case reaches the Court which enables the justices tomake that clear).

If the decision at the Supreme Court level was reasonable,the lower court decisions that led up to it was bizarre. Donaldson consistently denied hewas or ever had been mentally ill, absolutely refused all treatment for his non-existent(in his own mind) mental illness, and was only kept in the hospital so long because hebecame involved in a tug of war with his doctors who were determined to treat him. It isthe height of irony that he should have sued and won on the basis that his doctors haddenied him treatment.