An Award With An Even Bigger Payoff

Robin Topping
Newsday, January 14, 2004

When Robert Lee Marion went to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for a minor medical procedure, he hadn't planned on a six-day stay there -- against his will.

In December 1998, Marion, then 59, of Manhattan, went to the emergency room, saying he needed the surgery because of his diabetic condition. But when doctors told him there was no surgery scheduled for him, Marion, who was unemployed and has a history of mental illness, became very upset.

He grew loud, saying the government was trying to systematically kill poor people. After two brief interviews with doctors, Marion was involuntarily committed and injected with a potent psychiatric medication.

Under state law, doctors have the right to keep patients hospitalized against their will on an emergency basis, if they appear to be a danger to themselves and others.

Marion claimed in a lawsuit filed in 2000 against Bellevue and the doctors who treated him that his behavior didn't warrant confinement. During the trial in federal court in Manhattan, his lawyer, William Brooks told jurors that while Marion wasn't acting normally, his behavior had not crossed the legal threshold that would require him to be locked up.

Instead, Brooks -- a professor at Touro Law School in Huntington -- argued that doctors committed Marion because they felt he needed treatment for mental illness and illegally deprived him of his freedom. Marion, who had no history of being hospitalized, was released six days later, only after a hearing at Bellevue.

"This case is quite frankly pure and simple about liberty," Brooks told jurors last year during opening statements, according to a transcript. "It's about one's liberty to come and go when one wants, without interference from the government. And it is also about ... the freedom to have one's thoughts, no matter how off-beat or off-center or ... even radical, without being labeled mentally ill or crazy or dangerous and then being shut off to a psychiatric hospital because physicians, upon the most cursory evaluations, believe you are mentally ill."

Lawyers for the New York Health and Hospital Corporation in Manhattan, which runs Bellevue, had a different view. According to the court transcript, in her opening statement, city attorney Nancy Botta told the jury, "... the plaintiff was aggressive. He was getting close to people. He was getting in their faces. As he pointed and waved his finger, he was loud and threatening ... the plaintiff was actively manic, he was psychotic and he was delusional."

Bellevue doctors who committed Marion determined that he was "not only mentally ill, but that he was a danger to himself and a danger to the community," Botta told jurors.

After a four-day trial, the jury awarded Marion $750,000 in damages for his confinement and $225,000 for the injections -- one of the largest awards nationally in cases involving the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill, experts said.

It's also an extraordinary verdict because, in most cases, people like Marion don't have the means or the opportunity to bring their case to court. "It's generally very difficult for people with mental illness to access the legal system," said Ron Honberg, legal director of the National Association for the Mentally Ill. "It's hard for them to get lawyers because for one thing, what's the likelihood of damages?"

Marion was referred to Brooks' legal clinic at Touro that specializes in cases involving the mentally ill. Brooks and several students had worked with Marion since 1999.

The clinic filed the suit in January 2000, asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Over the years, different third-year students and a staff attorney who is a recent Touro graduate worked on it, along with Brooks.

U.S. Magistrate Douglas Eaton dismissed Marion's claim for punitive damages. The city has asked him to reduce the award and to set aside the verdict, arguing that it is contrary to the weight of the evidence. But Brooks said, "It's a major victory, even if the award is reduced."

He added: "The award sends a message to psychiatric hospitals and doctors that you can't routinely admit someone and label them dangerous ... and inject them with mind-altering drugs because you have a desire to treat them."

Stephanie Muick, a former Touro student said the experience of doing research on the case shifted her career focus from criminal defense law to legal advocacy for the mentally ill. "It really had an effect on me," said Muick, 23, who is now at home in Pittsburgh studying for the bar exam. "When Professor Brooks called me and told me about the verdict, I was in shock."

Another former student, Melodie Shuler, 26, of Washington D.C., said working on the case piqued her interest in public interest law. Shuler, who worked mostly on motions during the discovery phase, said, "I thought we had a very strong case. They had no right to confine him ... I felt it was also great because it gave me confidence that good things can happen in the legal system."

Brooks and the students took no portion of the award, although the city will have to pay Touro for their legal fees, which will go back to the clinic program.

Marion could not be reached for comment. But Brooks said his client, although pleased with the verdict, thought he deserved much more. "He believes," Brooks said, "he is entitled to billions."

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.