O'Connor v. Donaldson

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O'Connor v. Donaldson  (1975) 
Syllabus
O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975), was a landmark decision in mental health law. The United States Supreme Court ruled that a state cannot constitutionally confine, without more, a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends, and since the previous jury found, upon ample evidence, that petitioner did so confine respondent, it properly concluded that petitioner had violated respondent's right to liberty.
Court Documents
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
Burger

Supreme Court of the United States

422 U.S. 563

O'CONNOR  v.  DONALDSON

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

No. 74-8  Argued: January 15, 1975 --- Decided: June 26, 1975

Respondent, who was confined almost 15 years "for care, maintenance, and treatment" as a mental patient in a Florida state hospital, brought this action for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner, the hospital's superintendent, and other staff members, alleging that they had intentionally and maliciously deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty. The evidence showed that respondent, whose frequent requests for release had been rejected by petitioner notwithstanding undertakings by responsible persons to care for him if necessary, was dangerous neither to himself nor others, and, if mentally ill, had not received treatment. Petitioner's principal defense was that he had acted in good faith, since state law, which he believed valid, had authorized indefinite custodial confinement of the "sick," even if they were not treated and their release would not be harmful, and that petitioner was therefore immune from any liability for monetary damages. The jury found for respondent and awarded compensatory and punitive damages against petitioner and a codefendant. The Court of Appeals, on broad Fourteenth Amendment grounds, affirmed the District Court's ensuing judgment entered on the verdict. Held:

1. A State cannot constitutionally confine, without more, a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends, and since the jury found, upon ample evidence, that petitioner did so confine respondent, it properly concluded that petitioner had violated respondent's right to liberty. Pp. 573-576.

2. Since the Court of Appeals did not consider whether the trial judge erred in refusing to give an instruction requested by petitioner concerning his claimed reliance on state law as authorization for respondent's continued confinement, and since neither court below had the benefit of this Court's decision in Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, on the scope of a state official's qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the case is vacated and remanded for consideration of petitioner's liability vel non for monetary damages for violating respondent's constitutional right. Pp. 576-577.

493 F.2d 507, vacated and remanded.

Stewart, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Burger, C. J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 578.

Raymond W. Gearey, Assistant Attorney General of Florida, argued the cause for petitioner pro hac vice. With him on the briefs were Robert L. Shevin, Attorney General, and Daniel S. Dearing, Special Assistant Attorney General.

Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Morton Birnbaum.[*]


Notes[edit]

^ . William F. Hyland, Attorney General, Stephen Skillman, Assistant Attorney General, and Joseph T. Maloney, Deputy Attorney General, filed a brief for the State of New Jersey as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., for the American Psychiatric Assn.; by Francis M. Shea, Ralph J. Moore, Jr., John Townsend Rich, James F. Fitzpatrick, Kurt W. Melchior, Harry J. Rubin, Sheridan L. Neimark, and A. L. Zwerdling for the American Association on Mental Deficiency; and by June Resnick German and Alfred Berman for the Committee on Mental Hygiene of the New York State Bar Assn.

William J. Brown, Attorney General, and Andrew J. Ruzicho and Barbara J. Rouse, Assistant Attorneys General, filed a brief for the State of Ohio as amicus curiae.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).