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Oddo v. Queens Village Committee for Mental Health for Jamaica Community Adolescent Program, Inc.

New York Court of Appeals

February 16, 2017

Anthony Oddo, Respondent,
v.
Queens Village Committee for Mental Health for Jamaica Community Adolescent Program, Inc., Appellant.

          Amy S. Weissman, for appellant.

          Brian J. Isaac, for respondent.

          Pacific Legal Foundation, amicus curiae.

          ABDUS-SALAAM, J.

         On this appeal challenging the denial of a motion for summary judgment, we consider whether the defendant mental health and substance abuse treatment facility owed a duty of care to plaintiff, who was assaulted by one of defendant's discharged residents. Because defendant discharged the resident from the program, and thus lacked control over him at the time of the incident, we hold that defendant owed no duty of care to plaintiff.

         I.

         Non-party Sean Velentzas was arrested for holding a cab driver at gunpoint and forcing him to withdraw money from an ATM. Velentzas was given the opportunity to participate in Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC). TASC is an alternative-to-incarceration service which, with the consent of the court and the district attorney, works with organizations like defendant, Queens Village Committee for Mental Health for Jamaica Community Adolescent Program, Inc. (JCAP), to provide criminal defendants with substance abuse and mental health treatment services. Velentzas was admitted to JCAP and was expected to complete the program within eighteen months; however, three weeks into his program, he got into an altercation with another resident and admitted to having consumed alcohol while at JCAP's facility. As a result, and pursuant to established guidelines, JCAP discharged Velentzas from the facility. Shortly after his expulsion, Velentzas assaulted plaintiff Anthony Oddo - his mother's boyfriend - by repeatedly punching him in his face and stabbing him in the shoulder.

         Plaintiff commenced this negligence action against JCAP contending that his injuries were solely the result of JCAP negligently releasing Velentzas. After answering the complaint and following discovery, JCAP moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. JCAP argued that it owed no duty to plaintiff because Velentzas was properly discharged from the facility for having violated its policies against violence and alcohol use. In support of its motion, JCAP submitted the deposition testimony and affidavit of Ricky Cottingham, JCAP's acting clinical program director. In his deposition, Cottingham explained that during approved outings, residents are escorted by JCAP staff and must sign in and out when they leave and return to the facility. However, residents can leave the program against medical advice and, in any event, JCAP staff members are not authorized to physically prevent a participant from leaving the building.

         In his affidavit, Cottingham stated that he was advised by facility staff on the day of the incident that Velentzas broke two cardinal rules of the facility: intoxication and physical violence. This required his dismissal. He explained that when TASC participants are dismissed from the program, TASC must be notified of the participant's rule violation and discharge from the program, and the participant is directed to report to TASC on the following business day. Cottingham stated that because Velentzas was dismissed on a weekend, he would have to report to TASC the following Monday. Similarly, because of the weekend dismissal, TASC would also be notified on that date.

         Cottingham explained that, following the incident, JCAP began filling out paperwork to transfer Velentzas to an intermediary facility until Queens TASC could be notified of the altercation and violation of JCAP's rules. However, Cottingham stated that as the paperwork was being filled out, Velentzas became enraged and began acting out of control. Staff, in accordance with JCAP's policy, called 911. When the police arrived Velentzas was escorted off the premises. Cottingham opined that JCAP did not release Velentzas to the general public and did not intend to do so.

         Additionally, in support of its motion, JCAP submitted a copy of the report that was created by a JCAP Clinical Counselor following the incident, which stated:

"Client had pushed another client to the ground. It was alleged that he was intoxicated. He refused to submit to a breathalyzer but admitted to drinking. He stated that he was leaving and left against clinical advice.... Staff informed him that he had broken a cardinal rule and that there is no threat of violence or violence on property. Staff called 911 and he was escorted by police officers off the property."

         Supreme Court denied JCAP's motion for summary judgment, holding that JCAP owed a duty of care to plaintiff. The Appellate Division, with one Justice dissenting, affirmed (135 A.D.3d 211 [1st Dept 2015]). The dissent reasoned that JCAP did not have a duty to protect the general public from Velentzas after his proper discharge from the facility. That court granted JCAP's motion for leave to appeal to this Court, certifying the following question: "Was the order of this Court, which affirmed the order of Supreme Court, ...


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