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Doe v. Sempervirens Mental Health Facility

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 13, 2015

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
SEMPERVIRENS MENTAL HEALTH FACILITY, et al., Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT Re: Dkt. No. 48

JAMES DONATO, District Judge.

This is a civil rights action arising out of plaintiff John Doe's attempt to purchase a rifle in 2012. Plaintiff alleges that he was unable to buy the firearm because a county mental health facility had incorrectly reported a prior treatment stay to the California Department of Justice ("DOJ"). Plaintiff also alleges that when he tried to fix the reporting error, the hospital and its employees refused to do what was needed, in a conscious and deliberate effort to deprive him of his constitutional right under the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms.

The Court previously granted plaintiff the right to proceed pseudonymously, Dkt. No. 28, and plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Kamala D. Harris, who had been sued in her official capacity as the Attorney General for the State of California and the head of the DOJ. Dkt. No. 44. The remaining defendants are Sempervirens Mental Health Facility ("Sempervirens"), which is an agency of the County of Humboldt, and two of its administrator employees: Drs. Asha George and Chris Starets-Foote. All three defendants ask the Court to grant summary judgment in their favor pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court grants the motion.

BACKGROUND

As the undisputed facts establish, plaintiff was hospitalized at Sempervirens for a brief period in mid-1999. Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 4-5. Sempervirens reported to the California DOJ that plaintiff was hospitalized involuntarily under California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 5250. Id. ¶ 5. That section permits "[t]he professional staff of the agency or facility providing evaluation services" to certify a person "for not more than 14 days of intensive treatment related to the mental health disorder or impairment by chronic alcoholism, " if, among other things, the staff "has analyzed the person's condition and has found the person is, as a result of a mental health disorder or impairment by chronic alcoholism, a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled." Cal. Welfare & Institutions Code § 5250(a). A person so certified has the right to receive a "certification review hearing, to be held within four days of the date on which the person is certified..., to determine whether or not probable cause exists to detain the person for intensive treatment related to the mental disorder or impairment by chronic alcoholism." Id. § 5254. Plaintiff never received a certification review hearing.

Plaintiff contends that his hospital stay should have been reported under Section 5150 instead of Section 5250. Section 5150 permits peace officers, persons designated by a county and others to, "upon probable cause, take, or cause to be taken, [a] person into custody for a period of up to 72 hours for assessment, evaluation, and crisis intervention, or placement for evaluation and treatment in a facility designated by the county...." The parties do not dispute that, as a matter of federal law, persons who are hospitalized under Section 5150 are subject to a 5-year ban on the purchase of firearms, while those who are hospitalized under Section 5250 face a lifetime ban. Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 4-5.

Plaintiff says that he first discovered the Section 5250 reporting error when he was unable to complete a purchase of a small caliber ".22 rifle" in early 2012. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. He was denied the purchase on the ground of a purported lifetime ban. He then engaged in efforts to get Sempervirens to correct his record with the DOJ, beginning with a call to Sempervirens' records department. In his own words, plaintiff states that he was "surprised and happy" when Sempervirens promptly and on its own initiative faxed to the DOJ a correction form, "indicating plaintiff was hospitalized in 1999 under Section 5150" and not Section 5250. Id. ¶¶ 10-13; Dkt. No. 52 ¶ 13. Plaintiff was later informed, however, that the DOJ had requested "a follow-up letter from Sempervirens' director, Dr. George, explaining the 12-year lapse in correcting the mistaken 1999 report" before it would actually correct plaintiff's record. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 14. Plaintiff had several phone calls with Dr. George, Dr. Starets-Foote and other Sempervirens personnel, some of which took on an angry and contentious tone. In one call, Dr. Starets-Foote informed plaintiff that "Sempervirens would never' provide the requested letter to the DOJ, " id. ¶ 16, and that she "does not care about" plaintiff's constitutional rights. Dkt. No. 52 ¶ 44.

It is undisputed, however, that in May 2012, Dr. George did send a letter to the DOJ which stated:

Based upon review of the existing records, [plaintiff] was placed on a 5250 [on] June 26, 1999. He was placed on a voluntary status [on] June 29, 1999 and subsequently discharged on July 1, 1999. The notice of Welfare Institution Code 5250, 14 day hold, was sent to Department of Justice on June 26, 1999.
Please note [plaintiff] did not have a Certification Review Hearing. If you have any questions, I can be reached at....

Dkt. No. 48-1, Ex. C. The DOJ apparently did not consider this letter to be sufficient and did not correct plaintiff's record after receiving it. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 24.

On August 4, 2014, about six months after plaintiff filed this lawsuit, Dr. George sent another letter to the DOJ. This second letter stated:

Please allow this letter to provide further clarification as to the reporting on June 26, 1999, of a Welfare and Institution Code § 5250 hold of [plaintiff]. [Plaintiff] was held on a Welfare and Institution Code § 5150 hold commencing June 23, 1999, and this was properly reported on that date.
Staff certified [plaintiff] for a further hold on June 26, 1999, pursuant to Welfare and Institution Code § 5250 and, as was the understanding of facility staff as to the practice at that time, a report was made of this. [Plaintiff] agreed to voluntary commitment prior to expiration of the four day time frame within which a hearing must be held and thus, no certification hearing occurred. It is my understanding under current guidelines, [plaintiff] would not be classified under Welfare and Institution Code § 5250 for reporting purposes because no hearing occurred ...

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