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In re C.W.

Supreme Court of Mississippi

August 16, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF C.W.
v.
LAMAR COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH AND STATE OF MISSISSIPPI IN THE MATTER OF R.M.: MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH AND STATE OF MISSISSIPPI
v.
LAMAR COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/01/2017

          LAMAR COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. DEBORAH J. GAMBRELL TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: MARY JO WOODS DOUGLAS T. MIRACLE WILLIAM MELVIN ROSAMOND CYNTHIA TOMLINSON EUBANK

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: KATHY DENISE SONES

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., MAXWELL AND ISHEE, JJ.

          ISHEE, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. This case requires this Court to determine if Mississippi Code Section 41-21-77 allows a director of a state hospital independently to override a commitment order of a chancery court for treatment of mental illness. It does not. And because this statutory question comes to this Court through the vehicle of a citation of contempt, this case also requires this Court to review the citation of contempt to determine whether the chancery court's classification of the contempt was correct and whether correct procedures were followed in the finding of contempt. As fully explained below, we find that the chancery court erred in its contempt determination. We reverse the chancery court's contempt finding, we remand the case for an entry of an order of recusal, and we otherwise order proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. In 2017, two individuals-R.M.[1] and C.W.[2]-were committed to the South Mississippi State Hospital (SMSH) to be treated for mental illness. As required under the commitment statute, both R.M. and C.W. were evaluated by court-appointed physicians, one a medical doctor, the other a psychologist. In the cases of both individuals, the evaluating physicians were the same two physicians. And in both cases, the physicians' recommendations were the same: the medical doctor found that both individuals were, to some degree, mentally ill and thus needed treatment; the psychologist found that both individuals were not mentally ill and did not need treatment.

         ¶3. In addition to the documents submitted to the chancery court by the evaluating physicians, both R.M. and C.W. waived their rights to a commitment hearing, as is allowed under Mississippi Code Section 41-21-76 (Rev. 2013). In their respective waiver documents, both R.M. and C.W. indicated they understood their need for treatment. Once the waivers were received by the chancery court, the chancery court signed and entered orders of commitment; both orders were entered on the same day, March 14, 2017.

         ¶4. Upon receipt of the orders of commitment, SMSH's Facility Director Sabrina Young denied admission to both patients. Young sent a letter to the Lamar County Chancery Clerk detailing her reasons for denying admission to R.M. and C.W. In both cases, Young, through consultation with SMSH's clinical physician, independently had determined that both R.M. and C.W. needed treatment for drug and alcohol issues, not treatment for mental illness. And because SMSH was not equipped to treat patients for drug and alcohol issues, Young determined that SMSH did not have services or facilities to treat adequately the two individuals. Young based her authority to deny R.M. and C.W. admission on Mississippi Code Section 41-21-77 (Rev. 2013), which states that "no person shall be so delivered or admitted until the director of the admitting institution determines that facilities and services are available."

         ¶5. After receiving Young's letter, the chancery court felt that it was left with no other option than to dismiss the case and release R.M. and C.W. from the custody of Lamar County. Next, the chancery court, with Special Master William Andrews[3] presiding, issued show-cause orders in both cases, directing Young, as director of SMSH, to show cause why she should not be held in contempt of court for her refusal to abide by the orders of commitment. The order also directed the Attorney General to show cause why the statute relied on by Young-Section 41-21-77-should not be declared unconstitutional to the extent that it allowed the facility director to refuse to provide medical treatment to R.M. and C.W. based on the unavailability of facilities or services.

         ¶6. On April 10, 2017, the chancery court conducted the show-cause hearing. Special Master Andrews presided over the hearing, and Chancellor Deborah Gambrell was in attendance. Young and the SMSH clinical physician testified at the hearing. The culmination of the testimony was clear: while the chancery court ordered the two individuals to be committed based on their mental illness, SMSH, upon reviewing the same documents presented to the chancery court, disagreed and found that the two individuals instead needed treatment for alcohol and drug issues.

         ¶7. At the end of the hearing, the special master dictated his findings of fact and conclusions of law into the record, determining that Young was in civil contempt and sanctioning her the sum of $1, 400, to be paid to the court within thirty days. Yet the special master did not stop there. The special master went on to find that if the finding of contempt was not upheld on review, and if Section 41-21-77 indeed allowed the director of a state hospital to overrule an order of commitment, the statute would be unconstitutional pursuant to Section 86 of the Mississippi Constitution (requiring the Legislature to provide care and treatment for the mentally ill). The special master also found Section 41-21-77 to be an encroachment of executive action on the judicial powers of the court, thus violating Section 144 of the Mississippi Constitution.

         ¶8. The findings of fact and conclusions of law were submitted to Chancellor Gambrell for review and signature. Chancellor Gambrell adopted these findings of fact and conclusions of law. The State of Mississippi and the Department of Mental Health appeal both cases, which this Court consolidated.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9. Statutory interpretation is a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Arceo v. Tolliver, 19 So.3d 67, 70 (Miss. 2009). As for contempt, the standard of review depends on the classification of the contempt citation. On one hand, "[i]f the contempt is civil, the proper standard utilized for review is the manifest error rule." In re McDonald, 98 So.3d 1040, 1043 (Miss. 2012). On the other hand, when reviewing a citation for criminal contempt, this Court "will proceed ab initio and will determine on the record whether the person is guilty of contempt beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. But if a case necessitates reversal on other procedural grounds, it is not necessary to review the record to determine if a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Mississippi Code Section 41-21-77

         ¶10. The basis for the chancery court's contempt finding was that the facility director was without authority to deny admission to R.M. and C.W. for mental-illness treatment at SMSH. And so, as an initial matter, to review properly the contempt finding, this Court first must determine what ...


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