On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Essex County.
King, Deighan and Bilder. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.
This case involves the right of a patient in a county psychiatric hospital to receive mail and unopened correspondence as guaranteed by N.J.S.A. 30:4-24.2(e)(7), a section of patients' "Bill of Rights," L. 1975, c. 85, § 1, et seq. The defendants contend that plaintiff's sole remedy is through resort to the federal courts because of a settlement agreement and order entered by a federal judge in Goodwin v. Shapiro, 545 F. Supp. 826 (D.N.J.1982).
We disagree with the Law Division judge and reverse. We conclude that plaintiff may resort to the judicial remedy created by our Legislature*fn1 for any alleged violation of her rights as a patient and need not resort to the federal court or its mediator.
Plaintiff has been a voluntary patient and resident at the Essex County Hospital Center since 1956. She had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and suffers from a delusion that she is a physician. She receives occasional mail at the hospital addressed to her known aliases, "Dr. Babs Golden" or "Dr. Barbara Smith". Her treatment team decided that she should not receive mail addressed to those names. The team thought receipt of this mail fostered her delusion and was poor for her therapy. This suit was brought in April 1983 to contest the legality of that decision. The suit claimed a right to relief under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and also under State law, N.J.S.A. 30:4-24.2(h).
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and "because plaintiff's claims are res judicata." The Law Division judge dismissed the complaint for failure to exhaust the administrative remedies contained in the Goodwin v. Shapiro settlement agreement.
Goodwin was brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 by 16 past and present patients, not including the present plaintiff, of the Essex County Hospital Center in 1980. In Goodwin the
Plaintiffs sought declaratory relief and an injunction restraining defendants from maintaining conditions and pursuing policies which they alleged deprived them of their right to meaningful treatment; subjected them to inhumane and unsafe environmental factors, such as physical abuse and overcrowded ward conditions; deprived them of effective medical care; confined them in unduly restrictive ward settings; deprived them of their fundamental personal and civil rights; and denied them access to their own funds. [ Ibid. ].
The action was certified as a class action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2), "with the class consisting of all past, present and future patients at the Essex County Hospital Center." Id. at 827.
On July 20, 1981 the parties entered into a stipulation of settlement "resolving all matters raised by the lawsuit." Ibid. Settlement set forth the "rights, standards and services", required by the Essex County Hospital Center in such areas of safety and maintenance of the physical plant, treatment, staffing, quality control, and nutritional standards. Id. at 827-848. As part of the settlement, the parties agreed that its terms would be monitored by a court-appointed master. Id. at 849-851.
In the case before us the judge reasoned that the plaintiff's allegations, even though "not specifically designated as a problem" in Goodwin, should be handled by the Goodwin master under the authority to mediate "any disputes that arise among or between the parties." Id. at 850, (Section XII(11)(d) of the settlement agreement). Despite finding that "the [master] was not strictly an administrative agency under R. 4:69-7 . . .", the judge held that
This matter should first proceed through the mechanism of the agreement and if no resolution can be agreed upon or arrived at it should be handled by the federal court ...