The defendant/third party plaintiff, Susan Pocrass, moves in limine for a ruling that the third party defendant Dr. Charles Ciolino is liable to her for false imprisonment and negligence.
This case involves claims for false imprisonment and medical malpractice arising from an alleged violation of New Jersey's civil commitment statute, N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.1 to 27.23.
In the fall of 1989, Michael Pocrass consulted with an attorney about his wife's behavior and the marital difficulties he and his wife were having. Apparently, Mrs. Pocrass had been exhibiting peculiar behavioral patterns involving a fear of contamination which manifested itself in the ritualistic showering and recleansing of her body. The attorney put Mr. Pocrass in touch with Dr. Robert Moreines, a psychiatrist affiliated with Fair Oaks Hospital,
to discuss whether Mrs. Pocrass's behavior warranted professional help. Dr. Moreines referred Mr. Pocrass to another psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Ciolino, who was employed by Psychiatric Associates of New Jersey, a group of doctors who maintained an office in Fair Oaks. After some prodding by Mr. Pocrass, Mrs. Pocrass agreed to visit Dr. Ciolino and did so on two occasions, on October 11 and November 1, 1989. Dr. Ciolino diagnosed Mrs. Pocrass as suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. Although urged to continue with Dr. Ciolino, Mrs. Pocrass refused further treatment. On November 16, 1989, Mr. Pocrass contacted Dr. Ciolino and advised him that his wife's condition had deteriorated and asked for his help in dealing with the problem. The next day Mr. Pocrass again contacted Dr. Ciolino and informed him that his wife's condition had reached crisis proportions. Specifically, he explained that his wife's fear of contamination had worsened, that her cleansing rituals had increased, that she was fatigued and not eating, and that she was not properly caring for their infant daughter.
Dr. Ciolino contacted Mrs. Pocrass and made an appointment for November 20, 1989. Mrs. Pocrass cancelled the appointment. On November 22, 1989, Dr. Ciolino met with Mr. Pocrass and both proceeded to the Spotswood Police Department, where Dr. Ciolino presented to the police an application for civil commitment and requested their assistance in taking Mrs. Pocrass to a place where she could be treated for her mental condition. Dr. Ciolino, Mr. Pocrass and two police officers then proceeded to the Pocrass home where, after observing Mrs. Pocrass and the condition of the house, Dr. Ciolino determined that Mrs. Pocrass was mentally ill and a danger to herself and others. He signed a physician's certification to that effect. At Dr. Ciolino's direction, the police officers took Mrs. Pocrass into custody, strapped her to a stretcher, and transported her by ambulance to Fair Oaks Hospital.
Dr. Mukejm D. Patel attempted to examine Mrs. Pocrass when she arrived at Fair Oaks Hospital but Mrs. Pocrass refused to permit him to examine her. Based on his observation of Mrs.
Pocrass and the information provided to him by Dr. Ciolino and Mr. Pocrass, Dr. Patel concluded that Mrs. Pocrass was mentally ill and a danger to herself and others. He completed and signed a physician's certification to that effect.
Both physicians' certificates, along with the application for commitment which had been prepared by Dr. Ciolino and signed by Mr. Pocrass, were then presented to a municipal court Judge who on the very same day signed an order of temporary commitment. A commitment hearing was held on December 8, 1989. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the court found that Mrs. Pocrass was a danger to herself and/or others and continued her commitment for an additional 14 days. A commitment hearing was held by a superior court Judge on December 20, 1989. The court concluded that Mrs. Pocrass was no longer a danger and she was therefore discharged.*fn1
Mrs. Pocrass contends that Dr. Ciolino falsely imprisoned her and was negligent in his failure to comply with the civil commitment statute.
The New Jersey civil commitment statute provides for two separate methods to commit a person involuntarily. One method is by referral from a state-designated "screening service" located in the county where the person resides. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.10(a).
The other is with the certificates of two private psychiatrists, without "screening service" involvement. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.10(b). Both methods require two physicians' certifications and a court order. The criteria for commitment is that a person must be a danger to himself or others:
A person shall not be involuntarily committed to a short-term care or psychiatric facility, or special psychiatric hospital unless the person is mentally ill and that mental illness causes the person to be dangerous to self or dangerous to others or property, and appropriate facilities or services are not otherwise available. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.9(b).
In 1987, the New Jersey Legislature substantially overhauled and streamlined the substantive and procedural aspects of its civil commitment laws. The focus and the linchpin of the new law is the mental health "screening service," defined in the statute as:
[A] public or private ambulatory care service designated by the commissioner, which provides mental health services including assessment, emergency and referral services to mentally ill persons in a specified geographic area. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.2(z).
The statute sets forth how a screening service is designated:
The commissioner, in consultation with the appropriate county mental health board and consistent with the approved county mental health plan, shall designate one or more mental health agencies or facilities in each county or multi-county region in the State as a screening service. The commissioner shall so designate an agency or facility only with the approval of the agency's or facilities's governing body. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.4.
And it specifically states that the screening mechanism is the preferred process for entry into a facility:
In designating the screening services, the commissioner shall ensure that screening services are accessible to all persons in the State who need these services and that screening service evaluation is the preferred process for entry into short-term care facilities or psychiatric facilities so that ...