The Civil Commitment of B.N. v. Health & Hosp. Corp., 22S-MH-408

Case DateDecember 16, 2022
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of B.N., Appellant

Health and Hospital Corporation d/b/a Sandra Eskenazi Mental Health Center, Appellee

No. 22S-MH-408

Supreme Court of Indiana

December 16, 2022

Argued: October 11, 2022

Appeal from the Marion Superior Court No. 49D08-2110-MH-35009 The Honorable Melanie Kendrick, Magistrate

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 21A-MH-2525

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Valerie K. Boots Joel M. Schumm Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Bryan H. Babb Seema R. Shah Bose McKinney & Evans LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.

Justices Massa, Slaughter, Goff, and Molter concur.



Rush, Chief Justice.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, this Court issued an order in May 2020-later extended through 2022-that amended Indiana Administrative Rule 14 to expand trial courts' ability to conduct remote proceedings through audiovisual communication, often called "remote" or "virtual" hearings. Central to this case is the court's burden under Rule 14 to find good cause for proceeding remotely when a party objects. We conclude that good cause requires particularized and specific factual support. Here, the trial court's bare mention of "the COVID-19 pandemic" failed to meet that standard when it conducted a party's commitment hearing virtually over her timely objection. But because we ultimately conclude that the error was harmless, we affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

B.N. has suffered from schizophrenia for many years. On October 15, 2021, medical professionals sought an emergency detention, noting that her significant delusional thought processes resulted in her causing a car accident the previous day. B.N. was then admitted to Eskenazi for inpatient treatment. After evaluating B.N., who was unable "to differentiate reality from her paranoid delusions," her physician petitioned the court for a temporary or regular commitment.

B.N. was notified on October 21 that her commitment hearing would be held in person on October 25. Although the record does not reflect when or how B.N. was notified that her hearing would instead be held remotely, her counsel filed a motion objecting to the virtual hearing. The motion indicated B.N.'s desire to have an in-person hearing and cited this Court's emergency orders modifying Administrative Rule 14. Later that same day, the trial court simply stamped the motion "DENIED."

Three days later, at the beginning of the remote hearing, counsel renewed the objection, reiterating B.N.'s desire to appear in person. The court denied the request, stating, "we're proceeding remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic," and directed Eskenazi to call its first witness. Eskenazi called B.N.'s attending psychiatrist and B.N.'s daughter, each of


whom testified about the severity of B.N.'s mental illness. They described her delusional thinking, indicated her refusal to take prescribed medication when not hospitalized, and provided examples of her alarming behavior-including reckless driving and throwing scalding water around her home to fend off imagined threats.

B.N.'s counsel cross-examined each witness, highlighting the psychiatrist's limited contact with B.N. and B.N.'s ability to take care of her basic needs while in the inpatient unit. Counsel also called B.N., who stated that she would continue to take her medication if permitted to return home. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ordered a regular commitment, finding B.N. to be suffering from schizophrenia, gravely disabled, and in need of extended custody, care, and treatment.

B.N. appealed, arguing that the denial of her request for an in-person hearing violated Administrative Rule 14, as well as constitutional and statutory provisions. In a memorandum decision, our Court of Appeals affirmed, finding B.N.'s arguments were waived. B.N. v. Health and Hosp. Corp., No. 21A-MH-2525, 2022 WL 1153358, at *1 (Ind.Ct.App. Apr. 19, 2022). B.N. then sought transfer, which we now grant, vacating the Court of Appeals' opinion. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

Standard of Review

This case implicates two standards of review. First, we interpret de novo what constitutes good cause under Administrative Rule 14. See C.S. v. State, 131 N.E.3d 592, 595 (Ind. 2019). And second, we review a trial court's good-cause determination for an abuse of discretion. See Campbell v. State, 161 N.E.3d 371, 375-76 (Ind.Ct.App. 2020); J.P. v. G.M., 14 N.E.3d 786, 789-90 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014).

Discussion and Decision

Indiana Administrative Rule 14 explains when and how trial courts may conduct remote proceedings using telephone or audiovisual telecommunication. On May 13, 2020, in recognition of the ongoing


statewide COVID-19 emergency, this Court issued an order modifying Rule 14 to afford trial courts "broader authority to conduct court business remotely." In re Admin. Rule 17 Emergency Relief for Ind. Trial Cts. Relating to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, 144 N.E.3d 197, 197 (Ind. 2020). Specifically, the order-later extended through 2022-authorizes courts to use "audiovisual communication to conduct proceedings whenever possible to ensure all matters proceed expeditiously and fairly under the circumstances." Id.

This authority, however, is not absolute. On a party's objection "at the outset of the proceeding, on the record," the trial court "must make findings of good cause to conduct the remote proceeding." Id. at 198. Though modified Rule 14 will be replaced by Interim Rule 14 on January 1, 2023, the interim rule similarly requires "good cause shown" to conduct testimonial proceedings-such as commitment hearings-virtually. Interim Admin. Rule 14 for Remote Proc., 22S-MS-1 (Ind. Sept. 30, 2022).

Here, B.N. argues that the trial court failed to make the requisite findings of good cause to proceed remotely, entitling her to reversal of her commitment order and to an in-person hearing. Eskenazi counters that the trial court satisfied modified Rule 14 and that even if the court erred, any error was harmless.[1] We hold that the trial court abused its discretion by proceeding with the virtual hearing without articulating any particular and specific facts supporting its decision-referring solely to COVID-19 is not enough. But, on this record, we hold that the error was harmless.


I. The trial court did not make the...

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