ALBANY – An upstate New York college student who was involuntarily committed for a mental health evaluation after invoking the name “Columbine” during a dispute with officials is not entitled to the sealing of psychiatric records, a state appeals court has ruled.
The Appellate Division, Third Department, panel said state Mental Hygiene Law §33.14(a)(1) only provides for the sealing of mental treatment records when people are detained illegally by a facility due to “fraud, error or falsified documents.”
The court said the student, Mark Gardner, who attended the State University of New York at Cobleskill, cannot show his November 2013 stay at Bassett Medical Center’s psychiatric ward in Cooperstown occurred under those circumstances.
A psychiatrist, John Tanquary, testified on Gardner’s behalf in Matter of Gardner v. Bassett Medical Center, 522937, that the commitment was unsupported by a requisite emergency or impending one and, thus, was illegal.
But the panel said Tanquary reviewed the circumstances surrounding Gardner’s commitment with the advantage of hindsight and his impressions were counter to the reasonable conclusions of the doctors at Bassett and a therapist at SUNY-Cobleskill who saw Gardner just prior to his confinement.
“At best, Tanquary’s affidavit reflects a difference of opinion between the psychiatrist who evaluated petitioner upon his admission and the psychiatrist who evaluated him nearly one year later, and this conflicting medical opinion does not demonstrate that petitioner’s involuntary admission was erroneous,” Justice John Egan Jr. wrote for the court on March 9.
Presiding Justice Karen Peters and Justices Robert Rose, Eugene Devine and Sharon Aarons joined in the ruling.
Gardner, according to the court ruling, sent a text of a “concerning nature”—its contents were not in the record—earlier in 2013 to school officials. After a meeting with Cobleskill’s president and a school therapist in November 2013 to discuss the student’s complaints of not feeling safe on campus and other concerns, the ruling said Gardner became “agitated, hostile and angry.”
Gardner reportedly made reference to “violent acts,” including the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in which 12 students and one teacher were killed, the court said.
Cobleskill’s therapist arranged for Gardner’s involuntary admission to Bassett, which medical personnel can order on an emergency basis if they determine the safety of the patient or others is at issue. The stay was extended for two days by Gardner, the court noted.
In March 2015, Gardner brought an action seeking to have records of his involuntary commitment, which are maintained by the state Office of Mental Health, to be sealed on the grounds that he was illegally detained. Otsego County Supreme Court Justice Michael Coccoma dismissed Gardner’s application in May 2015.
Gardner was represented by Eric Broutman, a partner at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf in Lake Success.
Broutman said Monday that no decision has been made about a possible appeal of the March 9 decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Gardner, who no longer attends Cobleskill, believes his involuntary commitment was not warranted by the dispute with the college’s officials and does not want it on his medical records going forward, Broutman said.
“He never engaged in any overt, dangerous conduct, which the statute [MHL §33.14(a)(1)] requires,” Broutman said. “He thinks that he was wrongfully committed and he wants to clear his name, so to speak.”
Steven Williams, of Smith, Sovik, Kendrick & Sugnet in Syracuse, defended the Bassett Medical Center. Assistant state Solicitor General Allyson Levine represented the Office of Mental Health.
Bassett officials were not immediately available for comment.