Outagamie Cnty. v. C. J. A. (In re C. J. A.)

Decision Date12 April 2022
Docket Number2020AP2032
PartiesIn the matter of the mental commitment of C. J. A.: v. C. J. A., Respondent-Appellant. Outagamie County, Petitioner-Respondent,
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

APPEAL from orders of the circuit court for Outagamie County No 2016ME157 TIMOTHY A. HINKFUSS, Judge. Affirmed in part reversed in part and cause remanded for further proceedings.

Before Stark, P.J., Hruz and Dugan, JJ.


¶1 Catherine[1] appeals from an order extending her involuntary commitment and an order for involuntary medication and treatment, both entered pursuant to Wis.Stat ch. 51 (2019-20).[2] Catherine argues that she was denied due process because she was not given particularized notice as to which standards under Wis.Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2. the Outagamie County Department of Health and Human Services ("the County") intended to prove at trial in support of its petition to extend her commitment. In addition, Catherine argues that the special verdict presented to the jury did not fairly present the question of whether she was currently dangerous. Finally, Catherine argues that her appeal is not moot because exceptions to the doctrine of mootness apply.

¶2 We elect to address the issues in this case because they meet several exceptions to the mootness doctrine, including that they are likely to recur, should be decided to avoid uncertainty, and are almost certain to evade review. We determine that the general notice Catherine received regarding the County's petition for recommitment together with Catherine's knowledge of her own behavior and commitment history, provided sufficient notice of the relevant facts and the dangerousness standards that the County intended to prove, and an adequate opportunity to develop a defense. Additionally, Catherine fails to specify how her claimed lack of notice affected her ability to defend against the recommitment petition or what she would have done differently if she had received more specific notice.

¶3 We conclude, however, that the circuit court misstated the statutory test when it added language to the special verdict question concerning dangerousness. The addition resulted in an inquiry that did not properly reflect the focus of a Wis.Stat. ch. 51 recommitment proceeding: i.e., whether the individual is currently dangerous. Accordingly, we affirm the court's decision regarding notice, but we reverse on the issue of the special verdict question. We remand for the court to conduct a new trial with jury instructions and a special verdict that properly characterize the dangerousness inquiry, as specified in this opinion.


¶4 Catherine was first committed under Wis.Stat. ch. 51 in 2016 after her paranoia, mania, and delusions caused her mother and sister to fear for their safety. In addition, Catherine's social worker testified that she had requested Catherine be detained after she made threats toward a local judge. Catherine's examining physician, Dr. Marshall Bales, confirmed at the commitment hearing that his diagnosis of Catherine as detailed in his report was "schizoaffective disorder, manic, with psychotic features." Bales was also asked: "based on your conversations with [Catherine] was it clear to you that in her-the disorganized thoughts that she expressed that there was kind of an underlying theme of animosity and agitation toward the legal system?" Bales responded: "Oh, it's pronounced. It's delusional. It's distinctive. And it's-it's all over in the records for both recently and for years." Bales further testified he believed Catherine's condition was "going to spiral in a dangerous direction," and that "she needs care or treatment to prevent further disability or deterioration."

¶5 The circuit court concluded that Catherine was dangerous under Wis.Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2.b. based on the substantial probability of harm to persons in the legal system whom Catherine had threatened. The court also concluded, based on Bales' report, that "there exists a substantial probability that if left untreated, [Catherine] will lack the services necessary for health and safety and will suffer severe emotional, mental, or physical harm that will result in the loss of her ability to function independently in the community." Finally, the court determined that Catherine had limited insight into her illness and required an order for involuntary medication and treatment.

¶6 Catherine has been under commitment continuously since 2016. During the recommitment hearings that occurred in 2018 and 2019, the circuit court concluded Catherine was dangerous based on similar or identical behaviors to those underlying her initial commitment.[3]

¶7 As relevant to this appeal, an extension of Catherine's commitment was set to expire on May 8, 2020. The County petitioned to extend Catherine's commitment for an additional year on March 4, 2020. The petition was supported by a social worker's letter explaining, in part, that Catherine was in outpatient treatment for schizophrenia, and discussing the nature of that treatment. The letter also stated that Catherine lacked insight into her mental illness and that "it is believed" she would "decompensate" and "become a proper subject for a [Wis. Stat.] Chapter 51 commitment" if she were not recommitted. Catherine, represented by counsel, requested a jury trial, and the circuit court ultimately scheduled the trial for August 18, 2020.[4]

¶8 Prior to trial, Catherine filed a motion in limine requesting that "the Petitioner be ordered to select which standard of 'dangerousness' under Wis.Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2. it believes the Respondent evidences, and that Petitioner be precluded from presenting evidence as to other standards of dangerousness." At an August 5, 2020 pretrial conference, the County argued that the standards it pursued would be based on the doctors' testimony at trial and that none of the standards were mutually exclusive. As a result, the County argued, none of the evidence would be relevant to only one of the standards, and the County would be "handcuff[ed]" if it was restricted in advance to using evidence in support of only previously identified dangerousness standards at trial.

¶9 In response, Catherine's counsel argued that the County "may be right if we are talking generally about all jury trials under [Wis. Stat.] Chapter 51. But we are talking about [Catherine] in this case." Catherine pointed out that the doctors' reports had already been filed and the County had had a chance to review them, meaning that it had some idea of the doctors' possible testimony at trial. She argued that permitting the County to present evidence regarding her dangerousness under any and all of the statutory standards would be "unduly prejudicial" to her and that she should be given at least some guidance on the County's intent. The circuit court denied Catherine's motion, reasoning that the doctors' reports had already been filed and were accessible to Catherine and her counsel, that "the standards are not mutually exclusive," and that declining to require the County to select a standard ahead of time would prevent potential issues at trial.

¶10 Following the close of evidence, the circuit court held a jury instruction and verdict conference, during which it informed the parties that it had added language to question two of the special verdict. The original proposed special verdict question was taken from the form recommended in Wis JI-Civil 7050 (2020), the standard jury instruction at the time, and read: "[I]s the subject dangerous to herself or to others?" The court changed the special verdict question, adding the modifier "if not recommitted" to the recommended verdict question. Accordingly, the final form of question two of the special verdict submitted to the jury read: "Is [Catherine] dangerous to herself or to others if not recommitted?" The County approved this language, but Catherine objected, claiming that the additional language misstated the standard and failed to convey the primary question: whether Catherine was currently dangerous. She argued that while the jury instructions properly described the statutory dangerousness standards, the special verdict did not and was, therefore, incorrect.

¶11 The circuit court overruled Catherine's objection, noting, "I think this is the first time in 13 years I've ever deviated from pattern jury instructions. But that pattern jury instruction was really aimed at a commitment as opposed to a recommitment. To me, [that] makes all the difference." The court also quoted language from the Wisconsin Judicial Benchbooks, stating:

If there is a substantial likelihood based on the subject's individual treatment record that the individual would be a proper subject for commitment if treatment were withdrawn, then-and I stress this-the subject is considered dangerous.
So if [she's] not-if she's not recommitted, the [C]ounty's position is she's dangerous. And that's what the case law holds. And that's what that decision holds-held. And that's-that's in the jury instructions.

See Wisconsin Judicial Benchbooks: Probate, Guardianship, and Mental Health, MH 1-42 (2020). The court ultimately read the instructions and modified special verdict question to the jury. The jury answered "yes" to all three questions on the special verdict: whether Catherine was mentally ill; whether she was dangerous to herself or others if not recommitted; and whether she was a proper subject for treatment. Catherine now appeals.

I. Mootness

¶12 The recommitment order at issue in this appeal expired on August 18, 2021. As a result, we would ordinarily decline to consider the issues before us as moot. "An issue is moot when its resolution will have no practical effect on the underlying...

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