42 U.S.C Section 1983 Liability; Emergency Custody

Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., No. 15-1589, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 8512 (4th Cir. May 9, 2016)

Claim of Fourth Amendment seizure violation by officers who used independent emergency custody authority to take person into custody for mental health evaluation survives officers’ motion to dismiss, as facts alleged by plaintiff, if proved, would establish unlawful seizure. Related claim against CSB evaluator dismissed.

Background: In a complaint filed in the district federal court, Gordon Goines alleged that, on May 15, 2014, he was experiencing problems with his cable television service and was informed by a technician that one of his neighbors had spliced into his cable, and that that was the cause of the connectivity issues. Goines, according to his complaint, went across the street to a police station to report the theft. Goines took two officers back to his apartment, but the officers did not turn on the television and so did not hear the strange noises. Instead, according to Goines, the officers asked if Goines had any mental health issues or if he “wanted to talk to someone.” Goines believed they were referring to the problem with his television and so said yes. The officers then handcuffed Goines and transported him involuntarily to the area medical center. There he was interviewed by an intake clinician employed by Valley Community Services Board, who concluded that Goines suffered from a mental illness and posed a threat to the safety of his neighbors.

Goines was hospitalized until his release on May 20, 2014. Goines then brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he was unlawfully seized without probable cause in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Goines noted in his complaint that he suffers from cerebellar ataxia, which affects his speech, balance and fine motor coordination, but that he has no mental health issues. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and dismissed the complaint in its entirety.

Holding: On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that the claims against the mental health intake clinician and her employer were properly dismissed, but that the claims against the two officers had been dismissed in error. The court found that the allegations in Goines’ complaint were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss with regard to the officers because the complaint provided no reasonable basis for the officers to have concluded that Goines was a danger.

Notable Points:

Goines’ complaint plausibly alleged facts that no reasonable officer would have found sufficient to justify an emergency mental health detention: The Appeals Court noted that “a motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint,” so that the Court’s review was limited to “a review of the allegations in the complaint itself.” The defendant officers, noting that Goines had included the officers’ Incident Report as an attachment, argued that, by including the Report, Goines had adopted all of the statements in the Incident Report as true. Those statements, which described behaviors by Goines and observations of Goines by the officers that Goines did not allege in his complaint, were cited by the officers as showing good cause for Goines’ seizure, and thereby supporting the officers’ motion to dismiss. Goines argued, and the Appeals Court agreed, that while Goines relied on the Incident Report for some of the facts in his complaint, he did not base his claims on the Incident Report, and none of his claims were dependent on the truth of any statements contained in the Incident Report. Goines merely used the report to support his theory that the police assumed from his physical difficulties that he was mentally ill. The Fourth Circuit determined that Goines’ complaint alleged facts indicating that the officers failed to make a sufficient inquiry before assuming a threat and transporting him to the evaluation center. Also important to the court were the alleged facts that (1) Goines had reported to the stationhouse seeking police assistance and (2) the officers were not faced with an emergency situation that would limit their ability to conduct further inquiry.

Goines’ complaint failed to allege a constitutional violation by intake clinician: In contrast to the officers’ Incident Report, the Fourth Circuit found that Goines had incorporated by reference the intake Screening Report. Probable cause to seize a person for psychological evaluation exists “when the facts and circumstances within the defendant’s knowledge and of which the defendant had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man to believe that the person poses a danger to himself or others.” The Screening Report, which Goines had adopted for purposes of his claims against the clinician and community services board, showed that the clinician had observed Goines “behaving as if he were responding to visual hallucinations” and had received seemingly trustworthy information from the officers that Goines had been suffering from auditory hallucinations. Additionally, Goines, while in the clinician’s presence, threatened to attack his neighbors after his release. Taken together, the court held that these facts established probable cause for the emergency mental health detention, and supported the clinician’s motion to dismiss.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2