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A New York trial court’s decision to allow defendant doctors to testify as expert witnesses in a suit alleging the wrongful involuntary commitment of a purportedly suicidal Rockland County, N.Y., man has led a federal appeals court to reverse a verdict in the man’s favor. A divided 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the failure of the doctors, some of whom were defendants, to testify to “generally accepted medical standards” for temporary involuntary commitment under New York’s Mental Hygiene Law meant there was not enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find the patient, Frank Olivier, was wrongfully committed. The opinion in Olivier v. Robert L. Yeager Mental Health Center, 02-9494, was written by Judge Robert D. Sack. Judge Sonia Sotomayor concurred with Sack; Judge Reena Raggi dissented. A jury had awarded Olivier $20,000 in compensatory damages and $50 in punitive damages in a suit that alleged his civil rights were violated in 2001. Olivier, a corrections officer with the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department, had suffered from depression following his shooting of a prisoner during an escape attempt in the mid-1990s. Olivier had written a two-page note to his fiancee detailing his depression, his anger at the department’s handling of the incident and his belief that some individuals in the department might try to kill him. One of Olivier’s sisters, who had not seen the note but had been told about it, went to a psychiatrist at the Robert L. Yeager Mental Health Center in Pomona, N.Y., and told him about the note, saying that she feared Olivier was suicidal. The psychiatrist, Dr. Yar Mohammed, later spoke to Dr. Fraidherbe Ceus, who had been treating Olivier’s depression. Ceus did not, at that point, object to Olivier’s commitment. Mohammed then signed a “police letter” authorizing the Orangetown, N.Y., police to detain Olivier for his own safety and bring him to the hospital’s Crisis Center. But before the police could reach Olivier, he met with Ceus, who had reviewed the note and concluded Olivier was not suicidal. But he was too late: Olivier returned home and, within a short time, three police officers came to Olivier’s home and tried to handcuff him. When he resisted, they subdued him with pepper spray and took him to the Crisis Center. One doctor at the center, Gerjeet Gulati, allegedly told Olivier, “I don’t have any reason to keep you here,” but then changed his mind after reviewing Mohammed’s notes and those of an admitting nurse. At trial, Gulati testified he committed Olivier because he “posed a substantial risk of physical harm to himself.” A second doctor, Rita Padilla, examined Olivier during the first day of his commitment and then contacted Ceus, who said Olivier should be released. But Padilla declined to authorize his release because she was under the impression he had refused to “contract for safety” — an agreement not to hurt himself or anyone else. Olivier was finally released the following day after agreeing to “contract for safety.” Ceus, Mohammed, Gulati and Padilla testified as fact witnesses at trial. Ceus was not a defendant in the action. Southern District Magistrate Judge Mark D. Fox told the defense he would instruct the jury that the four doctors could testify as expert witnesses because they rendered opinions “in the field of psychiatry.” The charge was necessary, Fox said, because “the jury needs to know that simply because a physician gives an opinion doesn’t mean that the jury is bound to accept that opinion.” On the appeal, Sack and Sotomayor said they interpreted the evidentiary standards in the context of the temporary involuntary commitment statute, New York Mental Hygiene Law �9.39. Sack wrote, “Even though expert testimony may be unnecessary in some cases … the operative question remains the same: whether the action complained of met medical standards.” A doctor’s decision to commit a person involuntarily “does not ordinarily involve matters” that a layman might know, he said, and even with expert assistance, the question of whether someone is mentally ill and needs to be confined turns on the meaning of facts that must be interpreted by professionals. “We conclude, based on the record before us, that the jury was not competent to evaluate the professional propriety of the defendant doctors’ actions without the assistance of expert testimony,” Sack said. “Because Olivier did not introduce expert testimony as to medical standards,” there was not enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find that his involuntary commitment did not meet “standards generally accepted in the medical community.” Olivier, Sack said, did not elicit enough evidence to show that the doctors “acted for non-medical or otherwise improper reasons in having him temporarily committed.” THE DISSENT In dissent, Raggi wrote, “In general, the law affords trial judges considerable discretion to admit or exclude expert evidence as appropriate to helping the jury perform its sworn role.” A reviewing court, she said, should sustain a judge’s decision to decide a case without experts only if it is “manifestly erroneous.” She also said that expert testimony as to medical standards was, in fact, presented to the jury. During his charging conference, Raggi said, Fox said the doctors were not expert witnesses within the meaning of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26 because they had not been retained for the sole purpose of giving expert testimony. Nevertheless, the court concluded that “an expert-witness instruction was warranted because the doctors ‘did render opinions in the field of psychiatry,’” Raggi said. “Given the considerable background and training all these doctors had in psychiatry, and specifically in New York’s involuntary commitment procedures, I do not think we can fault the district court’s recognition of them as expert witnesses.” Because Olivier argued that the doctors recklessly ordered his confinement although they did not believe he was dangerous, she said, and “because this due process challenge turned largely on the jury’s assessment of the witnesses’ credibility, its resolution required no further expert testimony.” Jeffrey S. Rovins represented the defendant doctors and the hospital. Stephen Bergstein of Thornton, Bergstein & Ullrich in Chester represented Olivier.

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