Connor v. Donaldson 8212

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation45 L.Ed.2d 396,422 U.S. 563,95 S.Ct. 2486
Docket NumberNo. 74,74
PartiesJ. B. O'CONNOR, Petitioner, v. Kenneth DONALDSON. —8
Decision Date26 June 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, 95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214, 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.

Raymond W. Gearey, Jr., Tallahassee, Fla., for petitioner, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Bruce J. Ennis, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, Kenneth Donaldson, was civilly committed to confinement as a mental patient in the Florida State Hospital at Chattachoochee in January 1957. He was kept in custody there against his will for nearly 15 years. The petitioner, Dr. J. B. O'Connor, was the hospital's superintendent during most of this period. Throughout his confinement Donaldson repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, demanded his release, claiming that he was dangerous to no one, that he was not mentally ill, and that, at any rate, the hospital was not providing treatment for his supposed illness. Finally, in February 1971, Donaldson brought this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, alleging that O'Connor, and other members of the hospital staff named as defendants, had intentionally and maliciously deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty.1 After a fourday trial, the jury returned a verdict assessing both compensatory and punitive damages against O'Connor and a codefendant. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment, 493 F.2d 507. We granted O'Connor's petition for certiorari, 419 U.S. 894, 95 S.Ct. 171, 42 L.Ed.,2d 138 because of the important constitutional questions seemingly presented.


Donaldson's commitment was initiated by his father, who thought that his son was suffering from 'delusions.' After hearings before a county judge of Pinellas County, Fla., Donaldson was found to be suffering from 'paranoid schizophrenia' and was committed for 'care, main- tenance, and treatment' pursuant to Florida statutory provisions that have since been repealed.2 The state law was less than clear in specifying the grounds necessary for commitment, and the record is scanty as to Donaldson's condition at the time of the judicial hearing. These matters are, however, irrelevant, for this case involves no challenge to the initial commitment, but is focused, instead, upon the nearly 15 years of confinement that followed.

The evidence at the trial showed that the hospital staff had the power to release a patient, not dangerous to himself or others, even if he remained mentally ill and had been lawfully committed.3 Despite many requests, O'Connor refused to allow that power to be exercised in Donaldson's case. At the trial, O'Connor indicated that he had believed that Donaldson would have been unable to make a 'successful adjustment outside the institution,' but could not recall the basis for that conclusion. O'Connor retired as superintendent shortly before this suit was filed. A few months thereafter, and before the trial, Donaldson secured his release and a judicial restoration of competency, with the support of the hospital staff.

The testimony at the trial demonstrated, without contradiction, that Donaldson had posed no danger to others during his long confinement, or indeed at any point in his life. O'Connor himself conceded that he had no personal or secondhand knowledge that Donaldson had ever committed a dangerous act. There was no evidence that Donaldson had ever been suicidal or been thought likely to inflict injury upon himself. One of O'Connor's codefendants acknowledged that Donaldson could have earned his own living outside the hospital. He had done so for some 14 years before his commitment, and immediately upon his release he secured a responsible job in hotel administration.

Furthermore, Donaldson's frequent requests for release had been supported by responsible persons willing to provide him any care he might need on release. In 1963, for example, a representative of Helping Hands, Inc., a halfway house for mental patients, wrote O'Connor asking him to release Donaldson to its care. The request was accompanied by a supporting letter from the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology, which a codefendant conceded was a 'good clinic.' O'Connor rejected the offer, replying that Donaldson could be released only to his parents. That rule was apparently of O'Connor's own making. At the time, Donaldson was 55 years old, and, as O'Connor knew, Donaldson's parents were too elderly and infirm to take responsibility for him. Moreover, in his continuing correspondence with Donaldson's parents, O'Connor never informed them of the Helping Hands offer. In addition, on four separate occasions between 1964 and 1968, John Lembcke, a college classmate of Donaldson's and a longtime family friend, asked O'Connor to release Donaldson to his care. On each occasion O'Connor refused. The record shows that Lembcke was a serious and responsible person, who was willing and able to assume responsibility for Donaldson's welfare.

The evidence showed that Donaldson's confinement was a simple regime of enforced custodial care, not a program designed to alleviate or cure his supposed illness. Numerous witnesses, including one of O'Connor's codefendants, testified that Donaldson had received nothing but custodial care while at the hospital. O'Connor described Donaldson's treatment as 'milieu therapy.' But witnesses from the hospital staff conceded that, in the context of this case, 'milieu therapy' was a euphemism for confinement in the 'milieu' of a mental hospital.4 For substantial periods, Donaldson was simply kept in a large room that housed 60 patients, many of whom were under criminal commitment. Donaldson's requests for ground privileges, occupational training, and an opportunity to discuss his case with O'Connor or other staff members were repeatedly denied.

At the trial, O'Connor's principal defense was that he had acted in good faith and was therefore immune from any liability for monetary damages. His position, in short, was that state law, which he had believed valid had authorized indefinite custodial confinement of the 'sick,' even if they were not given treatment and their release could harm no one.5

The trial judge instructed the members of the jury that they should find that O'Connor had violated Donaldson's constitutional right to liberty if they found that he had

'confined (Donaldson) against his will, knowing that he was not mentally ill or dangerous or knowing that if mentally ill he was not receiving treatment for his alleged mental illness.

'Now, the purpose of involuntary hospitalization is treatment and not mere custodial care or punishment if a patient is not a danger to himself or others. Without such treatment there is no justification from a constitutional stand-point for continued confinement unless you should also find that (Donaldson) was dangerous to either himself or others.'6 The trial judge further instructed the jury that O'Connor was immune from damages if he

'reasonably believed in good faith that detention of (Donaldson) was proper for the length of time he was so confined . . ..

'However, mere good intentions which do not give rise to a reasonable belief that detention is lawfully required cannot justify (Donaldson's) confinement in the Florida State Hospital.'

The jury returned a verdict for Donaldson against O'Connor and a codefendant, and awarded damages of $38,500, including $10,000 in punitive damages.7

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court in a broad opinion dealing with 'the farreaching question whether the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to treatment to persons...

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