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Woe v. Cuomo

decided: February 22, 1984.


Appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Edward R. Neaher, Judge), granting summary judgment to officials of the State of New York and dismissing class action challenge to conditions of care and treatment in New York state mental institutions. Affirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part.

Kaufman, Oakes, and Cardamone, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

Although some of the mysteries of mental illness have yet to be unravelled, the ability of modern psychiatry to "minister to a mind diseased"*fn1 has expanded dramatically in recent years. Through the use of psychotropic drugs and new methods of therapy, psychiatrists and other mental health workers can help their patients to lead more productive lives relatively free from the debilitating effects of mental disturbance. Yet the tragic reality is that society's allocation of its finite resources often prevents the medical profession from bringing its full expertise to bear in combatting psychic afflictions. Revelations that emerged in the Wyatt litigation in Alabama and the Willowbrook case in New York, among others, have forced us to acknowledge that institutions for the mentally handicapped often do not provide treatment that remotely accords with contemporary medical standards.

Courts have long recognized that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not permit states to deprive mentally ill individuals of their freedom for therapeutic purposes unless some level of treatment is actually provided. We are confronted in this case with a broad challenge to the constitutional adequacy of treatment provided to persons civilly committed to New York State mental institutions. Although fully cognizant of the critical importance of the rights appellants seek to vindicate in this action, we are nevertheless persuaded that the district court was correct in holding that appellants had failed to assert an adequate factual basis for many of their claims. At the same time, we believe that the dismissal of certain claims was premature. Accordingly, we remand so that appellants may have an opportunity to document the constitutional defects they allege.


We shall attempt to review the nine-year history of this litigation in a concise manner. In a pseudonymous complaint filed in 1975, Walter Woe claimed that, as one involuntarily committed to Brooklyn State Hospital (now renamed Kingsboro Psychiatric Center), he was being denied that quality of care and treatment which the Constitution required. He contended that the state institution in which he resided was providing care which was grossly inferior to that offered by private hospitals, and, in particular, by Downstate Medical Center situated directly across from Kingsboro. He also asserted that individuals committed to state institutions were more likely to be poor, black, and more seriously ill than those treated in the psychiatric wards of general hospitals. He claimed that, as a quid pro quo for involuntary commitment, he was "constitutionally entitled to adequate and active care and treatment, either in a state mental hospital or in an alternative facility." Additionally, he argued that the level of care provided by general medical hospitals was the standard which the Constitution mandated, and the guideline by which his own care should be evaluated.

Woe also challenged the constitutionality of the New York Mental Hygiene Law (hereinafter "NYMHL") on its face and as applied, claiming that it failed to provide for State recognition and enforcement of his care and treatment rights. He also attacked disparities in the provision of Medicaid benefits to patients in private and state-administered mental hospitals, a claim no longer at issue here. Woe brought his complaint on behalf of a putative class of all similarly situated mental patients, and sought declaratory, injunctive and compensatory relief.

In his first order entered on a motion to dismiss, Judge Neaher carefully attempted to refine and focus the multiple issues raised by Woe. Woe v. Mathews, 408 F. Supp. 419 (E.D.N.Y. 1976). He held that the Medicaid claim was foreclosed by the Supreme Court's summary affirmance of Legion v. Richardson, 354 F. Supp. 456 (S.D.N.Y.), aff'd sub nom. Legion v. Weinberger, 414 U.S. 1058, 38 L. Ed. 2d 465, 94 S. Ct. 564 (1973), in which a virtually identical claim was rejected. He also upheld the constitutionality of the NYMHL, concluding that it did provide a satisfactory right to treatment and mechanisms for enforcing that right.*fn2 The judge then discussed appellants' constitutional claims, which he viewed as two-fold. He reasoned that when a state assumes "the burden of providing care for a dependent group, such as the mentally ill, it cannot consonant with the equal protection clause discriminate among those similarly situated mentally ill." 408 F. Supp. at 428. In addition, as a matter of due process, "it would seem encumbent upon the State as confiner to minimize the mode of confinement, and to employ whatever means are necessary, including such care and treatment as are reasonably possible in the circumstances of the case, to promote the speedy release and return to liberty of the person confined." Id. at 429 (citation omitted).

Judge Neaher concluded that these claims could not be summarily determined. He decided that maintenance of the suit as a class action would assure that class representatives would exist both at the initiation and the ultimate disposition of the suit.*fn3 Because Woe's interests were representative of those of the proffered class, the judge certified pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2) a class consisting of "all persons between the ages of 21 and 65 who are or who will be involuntarily civilly committed to New York State mental institutions." Id. Finally, several motions to add additional plaintiffs and defendants and to join new causes of action were denied. Most relevant to the current status of the action were the denials of a motion to add as defendants an organization called the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (hereinafter "JCAH") and certain of its officers and directors, and a motion to join a new claim alleging conspiracy by the JCAH and government defendants to violate plaintiffs' civil rights. The latter claim was predicated upon the theory that the JCAH uses lower accreditation standards in evaluating public than non-public mental hospitals, resulting in approval of substandard state institutions. That issue, the judge suggested, could be better examined in a separate action.*fn4

Both parties sought to challenge the class as certified. Plaintiffs moved to enlarge it by removing the age restrictions, while defendants moved to limit the class to those patients committed to Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In an unpublished order the following year, Woe v. Mathews, 75 CV 1029 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 13), aff'd by order, 562 F.2d 40 (2d Cir. 1977), Judge Neaher denied both motions "pending clarification of the issues which will form the essence of the action as discovery progresses." Id., slip op. at 6.

No further progress appears to have occurred for three years. In February 1980, appellants moved for a preliminary injunction barring further admissions to Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which had lost its JCAH accreditation. Appellants subsequently sought similar relief with respect to Hudson River Psychiatric Center, whose accreditation had also been revoked.

The parties and the judge held a status conference on May 14, 1980. At that session, the judge broached the possibility of appointing a panel of amici to assist the court in examining the state institutions and formulating constitutional standards of care and treatment. The judge noted that this procedure had been utilized with success by Judge Johnson in handling a challenge to the Alabama mental hospitalization system, Wyatt v. Stickney, 325 F. Supp. 781 (M.D. Ala. 1971), implemented in 344 F. Supp. 373 (1972), aff'd sub nom. Wyatt v. Aderholt, 503 F.2d 1305 (5th Cir. 1975). He indicated particular interest in the participation of the Department of Justice in the litigation, and noted that the recently-enacted Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997 (Supp. IV 1980), afforded that Department a special role in protecting the rights of residents of state institutions. Appellees, however, objected to the amici procedure, and indicated that if the judge intended to pursue it, they would seek certification under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) to allow an immediate appeal. For reasons which do not appear in the record, the proposal was never pursued.

A period of squabbling between the parties over discovery matters ensued, during which the substantive aspects of the litigation remained at a standstill. During that period both Kings Park and Hudson River Psychiatric Centers regained their accreditation. On May 24, 1982, appellees moved for summary judgment. Appellants responded with another order to show cause, this time relating to Manhattan Psychiatric Center, which had lost its JCAH accreditation, and South Beach Psychiatric Center, which had lost its certification by the Department of Health and Human Services (hereinafter "HHS") as a hospital providing adequate care. The court indicated by memorandum order that it would not entertain the request because it was "redundant of issues to be determined in motions already before this Court," Woe v. Carey, 75 CV 1029 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 2, 1982), but would instead treat appellants' papers as opposing the motion for summary judgment.

On May 16, 1983, Judge Neaher ruled on appellees' motion. Woe v. Cuomo, 559 F. Supp. 1158 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). He interpreted the Supreme Court's recent decision in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 73 L. Ed. 2d 28, 102 S. Ct. 2452 (1982), to require that the judgment of psychiatric professionals related to institutional care and treatment be accorded presumptive validity. After discussing the JCAH accreditation program, he concluded that it represented the exercise of professional judgment about a facility which, under Youngberg, constituted prima facie proof of adequacy. As to the accredited state facilities, he found that appellants had failed to present any data indicating that JCAH approval was "a mere 'veil' hiding due process violations." 559 F. Supp. at 1165. Accordingly, appellants' claim failed as to the accredited facilities.

Nor, the judge reasoned, does loss of accreditation per se necessitate a finding of due process violation, because JCAH standards seek to insure more than the minimal adequacy required by the Constitution under Youngberg. Moreover, he found no articulation by appellants of a standard to which JCAH norms could be compared to determine their conformity with constitutional requirements. Appellants therefore, he held, could not make a showing of liability based solely on non-accreditation.

As to the equal protection claims, the judge concluded that the state did not invidiously discriminate among similarly-situated individuals. Patients in state mental institutions, appellants conceded, tended to be involuntarily committed, while patients treated in private hospitals were uniformly present there on voluntary status. The statutory criteria for involuntary commitment, as Judge Neaher construed them, "anticipate an individual who is far more ill than those patients capable of voluntarily committing themselves." 559 F. Supp. at 1168. Appellants, the judge held, also failed to make the requisite showing of motive to support a claim of racial discrimination under the equal protection clause.

This left only one issue before the court: appellants' claim that, as to a particular state institution, loss of accreditation and/or certification might signal inadequacies so great as to amount to a constitutional violation. This "issue turns on facts unique to a given facility," the judge decided, and "common questions concerning class members are therefore no longer present in this action." Id. at 1169. A class action so conceived would "embroil this Court in a clearly unmanageable monitoring of the entire State mental health system." Id. Rather than assume such a burden which " was not contemplated . . . in the grant of class certification," the judge held that ...

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