Case Brief of O’Connor vs Donaldson

Published 16 Aug 2016

  1. Case Name: O’Connor v. Donaldson (422 US 563)

  2. Summary of the Case:

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    • a) Title: The Petitioner, in this case, is Dr. J.B. O’Connor while the Respondent is Kenneth Donaldson.

    • b) Facts of the Case: This case happened in 1956 when respondent’s father thinking that his son was suffering was paranoid delusions filed a petition before the court. During the sanity hearing, Donaldson was found to be suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia” and was committed to the Florida State Mental Health System for care, maintenance, and treatment pursuant to a state law. During the trial, it was established that even before he was confined, Donaldson posed no danger to himself or to others. There was no prior history of Donaldson being suicidal or being likely to inflict injury upon himself. Despite this, however, he was placed in a room together with 60 other patients who are dangerous criminals. In fact, even prior to his confinement Donaldson was able to earn his living and immediately after his confinement, he was able to land a job as a hotel clerk. The staff at the hospital also admitted during the trial that Donaldson did not receive any treatment for the entire duration of his stay. He only received a “milieu therapy” which was essentially mere confinement in the hospital. Donaldson claimed that he had been asking the hospital administrators that he be released because he was not mentally ill or dangerous to himself or to others and that if he was mentally ill the state and the hospital administrators did not provide him with any treatment for his illness. He added that several responsible persons and institutions were willing to provide him with any care in case he is eventually released but his request fell on deaf ears. Hence, a suit was filed by Donaldson against O’Connor and his staff for damages alleging that they had intentionally and maliciously deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty. The District Court ruled in favor of Donaldson. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling.

    • c) Law at Issue: the Law at issue here is the proper interpretation of a person’s constitutional right to liberty.

    • d) The Legal Question: Respondent maintained that the petitioners violated his constitutional right to liberty when they refused to release him despite knowledge that he is not a dangerous individual and is capable of surviving safely on his own. Petitioner maintained that he could not be held liable for monetary damages since merely acted in good faith when he followed a state law in Florida which allowed the indefinite custodial confinement of the sick even if they were not treated and their release would not be harmful.

    • e) Court Opinion and Holding: the Supreme Court ruled that a state law authorizing confinement of the harmless mentally ill does not protect the hospital administrators from suits based on constitutional grounds. Granting that involuntary confinement was initially permissible but if the reason for the confinement no longer exists then it becomes unconstitutional for a hospital to continuously detain a person against his will. The Supreme Court concluded that a state cannot constitutionally confine a person who is not dangerous and is capable of surviving safely on his own or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends. Since the jury found that O’Connor confined Donaldson despite his knowledge that he is a non-dangerous individual violated Donaldson’s constitutional right to liberty. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that O’Connor may be held liable to pay for damages since his actions violated the constitutional rights of the Donaldson. Supreme Court issued a ruling vacating the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanding this case to the Court of Appeals for the purpose of determining the O’Connor’s liability.

  3. The Supreme Court’s decision is consistent with the protection it has granted to the rights of the minorities. In the past, the Supreme Court has issued rulings for the protection of the rights of the Black Americans, gays and lesbians, pregnant women, and other minorities. In this case, the Supreme Court declared that mentally ill persons do have constitutional rights. They are entitled to the constitutional right of liberty which is enshrined and protected in the constitution. The state cannot continuously confine a person who is no longer dangerous to himself or to other person and who has shown to be capable of taking care of himself. It is because of this reason that I consider this decision as a good landmark decision that protects the constitutional rights of the mentally ill persons.

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