In the Matter of MKS

In the Matter of MKS, 2015 MT 146 (May 26, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether psychologist’s failure to file statutorily required written report in MKS’s civil commitment proceeding was plain error.

Short Answer: No.


Facts: MKS has been hospitalized numerous times for mental health illness. In November 2013, MKS stipulated to a 6-month community commitment. The order provided that MKS would remain at St. Pat’s Neurobehavioral Unit until she was stabilized, that she would keep all of he appointment and follow the recommendations of her treating professionals, and that she would take all of her medications, including injectable ones.

In January 2014, the state filed a “renewed” petition for commitment, stating police had taken MKS to the ER after she called the crisis line and said she was suicidal. ER staff requested a mental health evaluation, and a member of the mental health center’s crisis team evaluated MKS in the ER. Based on the evaluation, the social worker recommended emergency detention at the Montana State Hospital.

At the initial hearing, the court appointed Jay Palmatier, a psychologist with the Western Montana Mental Health Center, to examine MKS prior to the commitment hearing. MKS refused to talk to Palmatier. Palmatier told MKS he would be his recommendation on her most recent history if she chose not to talk to him. She did not talk, and he did not file a written report of his findings as required by § 53-21-123, MCA.

Procedural Posture & Holding: At the commitment hearing, Palmatier testified MKS had remained silent, but that he had evaluated her many times in the past. He stated MSH was the only available treatment option, and that he believed she should remain there for 90 days. MKS did not object to the absence of a written report. She cross-examined Palmatier, and testified on her own behalf. The district court found she posed a danger to herself and that a commitment to MSH was necessary to guarantee her safety. MKS appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The Court will review unpreserved claims under the plain error doctrine if it determines a constitutional or substantive right is at issue. In involuntary commitment proceedings, the respondent’s liberty is at stake, which is a substantial right. The plain error doctrine requires MKS to establish that the alleged error implicates a fundamental right, and that failure to review the alleged error would (1) result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, (2) may leave unsettled the issue of whether the proceedings were fundamentally fair, or (3) may compromise the integrity of the judicial process.

The statutory requirement of a written report guarantees notice of the medical basis, the opportunity to prepare a defense, and a procedural protection designed to ensure the person will not be deprived of her liberty with adequate process. MKS meets the first part of the plain-error test.

When a procedural error results in no substantial prejudice to a party, the error is de minimus and does not affect the person’s liberty interest. Here, MKS had notice, Plamatier was present for and testified at the hearing, and MKS had the opportunity to cross-examine him. MKS has not met the second prong of the plain-error test.