O'Connor v. Donaldson 1975

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O'Connor v. Donaldson 1975

Petitioner: Dr. J. B. O'Connor

Respondent: Kenneth Donaldson

Petitioner's Claim: That O'Connor, representing the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, had violated Donaldson's constitutional rights by keeping him in custody for a supposed mental illness against his will for nearly fifteen years.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Raymond W. Gearney

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Bruce J. Ennis, Jr.

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: June 26, 1975

Decision: Ruled that Donaldson possessed certain constitutional rights which had been violated, and that he could gather damages from those individuals who had violated his rights.

Significance: The decision affirmed that mentally ill persons have constitutional rights which must be protected. This recognition paved the way for people with mental illness to live in their communities rather than institutions.

Society has often isolated and confined persons with mental illness. Likewise, the U.S. mental health system has a long history of unequal treatment of mentally ill individuals. Occupying an inferior status in U.S. culture due to personal characteristics beyond their control, they have commonly been politically powerless, unable to pursue legal paths to establish their own rights. Many persons with mental illness had been subjected to a system which often warehoused them in state mental institutions for years, frequently offering no psychiatric therapy. Non-dangerous persons were likely to be housed with the dangerous in overcrowded conditions. Many were committed (ordered confinement for a mentally ill or incompetent person) to institutions against their will for an indefinite (no specific end) time period and denied basic constitutional civil rights (rights given and defined by laws). An early advocate (one who defends or argues for a cause for another person) for the rights of the mentally ill, Bruce Ennis, Jr., commented in 1973 in "The Legal Rights of the Mentally Handicapped" that mentally-ill individuals were "our country's most profoundly victimized [severely cheated] minorities."

During the 1960s and 1970s many minority groups began to fight for their civil rights. Black Americans, women, and gays and lesbians all worked to halt the discrimination they had faced daily. In response, Congress passed America's most significant law to ban discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Within this social activist period, advocates for the mentally ill and those mentally-ill persons who were able began to challenge the mental health system. Just as other minority groups had done, they chose to use the courts to improve the mental health system and to protect their civil rights. Amid a flurry of lawsuits was the case of Kenneth Donaldson, a case that would make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Long Commitment of Kenneth Donaldson

A forty-eight year old man from Philadelphia, Kenneth Donaldson traveled in 1956 to Florida to visit his aging parents. In conversation with his parents, he mentioned that he believed one of his neighbors in Philadelphia might be poisoning his food. Worried that his son suffered from paranoid delusions (a tendency of a person toward excessive suspiciousness or distrustfulness), Donaldson's father asked the court for a sanity hearing. Sanity hearings are held to determine if a person is mentally healthy. Upon evaluation, Donaldson was diagnosed with "paranoid schizophrenia" (disorders in feelings, thoughts, and conduct). The court committed Donaldson, who was not represented by legal council at his commitment hearing, to the Florida mental health facility at Chattahoochee. This commitment was involuntary and of a civil (no criminal action involved) nature.

Even though Donaldson had never been dangerous to himself or others, he was placed with dangerous criminals at the Florida hospital. To make matters worse his ward, with over one thousand males, was severely understaffed. There was only one doctor, who happened to be an obstetrician (delivers babies), one nurse to hand out medications, and no psychiatrists or counselors. Donaldson never received any treatment except what the hospital called "milieu therapy." Milieu therapy in Donaldson's case translated into being kept in a room with sixty criminally committed patients. Donaldson's confinement would last fourteen and a half years.

Beginning immediately upon confinement, Donaldson, on his own behalf, fought to speak to a lawyer and demand to have his case reheard. Believing he should be freed, Donaldson argued that he did not have a lawyer at his commitment hearing; that he was neither mentally ill nor dangerous; and, that if he was in fact mentally ill, he was not offered any treatment. Later, Donaldson would argue that he had not been released even when two different sources promised to take responsibility for his care. First, an old college friend had sought to have the state release Donaldson to his care and, later in 1963, a half-way home for the mentally ill in Minnesota had agreed to assume responsibility for him. Apparently for no cause, the hospital rejected both offers. Although the hospital staff had the power to release a patient such as Donaldson, Dr. J. B. O'Connor, the hospital's superintendent during most of this period, refused the release. O'Connor stated that Donaldson would have been unable to make a "successful adjustment outside the institution," although at the eventual trial O'Connor could not recall the basis for that conclusion. It was a few months after O'Connor's retirement that Donaldson finally gained his release.


Immediately upon his release Donaldson found a responsible job as a hotel clerk. He had no problem keeping his job or living on his own. In February of 1971, almost fifteen years after first being committed, Donaldson brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida against O'Connor and other hospital staff. Donaldson charged "that they had intentionally [on purpose] and maliciously [intent of committing an unlawful act] deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty [freedom]." The Fourteenth Amendment states that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law [fair legal hearing]." Dr. O'Connor's defense was that he acted in good faith in confining Donaldson since a Florida state law, which had since been repealed, had "authorized indefinite custodial [to protect and maintain confinement] of the 'sick' even if they were not treated and their release would not be harmful. . . " The court found in favor of Donaldson, awarding him monetary damages (money payment for wrongs against an individual). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling. O'Connor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case. The advocate Bruce Ennis, Jr. represented Donaldson.

Justice At Last

In a unanimous (9-0) decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Donaldson possessed certain rights and that he could be awarded damages from individuals who had taken those rights away. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the Court, viewed the case as raising a "single, relatively simple, but nonetheless important question concerning every man's constitutional right to liberty" guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

First, the Court ruled on the authority of the state to hospitalize mentally ill persons. Ruling that diagnosis of mental illness does not alone justify confining individuals against their will for an indefinite period of time, Justice Stewart wrote,


C ommitment of mentally ill or incompetent persons against their will (involuntary) has long involved weighing the person's civil rights with the rights of society to be protected from possibly dangerous individuals. Each state has its own laws for involuntary commitment. These laws define the types of mental illnesses and conditions that can lead to institutional commitment and those that can not. Those conditions generally excluded are drug or alcohol addition, mental retardation, and epilepsy.

In most states "dangerousness" to oneself or others is one key factor to consider. But there usually must be other closely related factors as well such as a persistently disabling condition which prevents responsible decisions. Also, hospitalization must not restrain the individual's liberties more than is really needed.

Involuntary commitment of persons convicted of a crime raise many constitutional problems. If a person is acquitted (found not guilty) of a crime by reason of insanity, his length of commitment for treatment is normally determined by the rate of his recovery. Many times this could lead to much longer confinement than if found guilty and sentenced in the first place. Cases of persons convicted of sex-related crimes are especially difficult. Courts have ruled that possibility of future crimes is not a reason to take away a person's freedom. However, under public pressure, state have passed laws allowing commitment of sexually dangerous persons if they seem likely to commit future criminal acts. Challenges are sure to follow.

A State cannot constitutionally confine . . . a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.

The ruling applied only to involuntarily civilly committed patients who were not a danger to themselves or others.

Secondly, the Court held that state hospital officials could be held liable (responsible for) for damages if their actions were carried out "maliciously . . . or oppressively [unreasonably severe]" and with the knowledge that their actions violated a person's constitutional rights.

Third and most significantly, the Court decision recognized the necessity of protecting the rights of mentally ill individuals. However, the Court left unsettled the issue of whether a person has a constitutional right to treatment if they are hospitalized for mental illness. Future cases would have to resolve that issue.

The O'Connor ruling encouraged others to challenge the mental health system when the civil rights of the mentally ill were abused. The decision also paved the way for many individuals suffering from mental illness to be able to remain within their local communities rather than being institutionalized.

Suggestions for further reading

Melton, Gary B., Philip M. Lyons, and Willis J. Spaulding. No Place to Go: The Civil Commitment of Minors (Children and Law). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. [Online] Website: http://www.nami.org (Accessed on July 31, 2000).

Winick, Bruce, Jr. The Right to Refuse Mental Health Treatment (Law & Public Policy: Psychology and the Social Sciences). American Psychological Association, 1997.

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