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Law School Case Brief

Zinermon v. Burch - 494 U.S. 113, 110 S. Ct. 975 (1990)

Rule:

In procedural due process claims, the deprivation by state action of a constitutionally protected interest in "life, liberty, or property" is not in itself unconstitutional; what is unconstitutional is the deprivation of such an interest without due process of law.

Facts:

In a complaint filed in a federal district court, respondent Marlus C. Zinermon alleged that, upon being found wandering along a highway, he had been taken to a private mental health-care facility designated by Florida to receive patients suffering from mental illness. Evaluation forms completed by the facility disclosed that, upon Zinermon's arrival at the facility, his face and chest were bruised and bloodied, and he was hallucinating, confused, and psychotic, and believed he was "in heaven." Zinermon was asked to sign forms giving his consent to admission and treatment, and he did so. After three days, during which time the facility's staff had diagnosed Zinermon's condition as paranoid schizophrenia and had given him psychotropic medication, the staff, concluding that Zinermon needed long-term care, referred him to a state mental hospital. Zinermon signed forms requesting admission and authorizing treatment at the state hospital and was then transferred there. Upon arrival at the state hospital, Zinermon other forms, including a "request for voluntary admission," which recited that the signatory agreed to accept any prescribed treatment in accordance with the provisions of expressed and informed consent. Zinermon remained at the state hospital, without benefit of a hearing regarding his hospitalization and treatment, until his release five months after his initial admission to the private facility.

On the basis of these factual allegations, Zinermon brought suit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against several members of the state hospital's staff. The District Court complaint substantively alleged that the staff members, acting under color of Florida law, had taken part in admitting Zinermon to the state hospital as a "voluntary" mental patient, at a time when he was incompetent to give voluntary and informed consent to his admission, and that such action had deprived the man of his liberty without due process of law, in contravention of the due process clause of the Federal Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. In response, the staff members moved for dismissal of the complaint, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court, granting the motion and dismissing the complaint, ruled that the complaint contended only that the hospital staff had failed to follow the applicable state statutory procedures governing the admission of mental patients, the state of Florida could not have anticipated or prevented an unauthorized deprivation of Zinermon's liberty, and the Florida's post-deprivation tort remedies provided Zinermon with all the process that was due him. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded, concluding that Zinermon's allegations that persons acting under color of state law had deprived him of his liberty without due process of law stated a procedural due process claim upon which relief could be granted. Petitioners, the state physicians, hospital administrators, staff members, and others sought certiorari review for the United States Supreme Court to resolved a conflict in the courts of appeals over the proper scope of the Parratt v. Taylor rule. 

Issue:

Was the complaint sufficient to state a claim under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that the complaint was sufficient to state a claim under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, insofar as Zinermon n was entitled to receive the procedural safeguards provided by Florida's statutory involuntary placement procedure and the staff members had allegedly failed to initiate such procedure. According to the Court, liability was not precluded by the rule that state officials cannot be held liable under § 1983 where the state officials' conduct constituted a random, unauthorized deprivation of a person's due process rights that the state is not in a position to predict or avert by providing pre-deprivation procedural safeguards, because any erroneous deprivation would have occurred at the specific, predictable point in the admission process when Zinermon was given admission forms to sign, and the deprivation could have been averted if Florida had limited and guided the hospital staff members' power to admit patients, but Florida had delegated to the staff members the power and authority to effect the alleged deprivation.

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