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No Pseudonymity in Lawsuit Challenging N.Y.'s Involuntary Commitment System as It Affects Gun Rights


In P.D. v. Sullivan (S.D.N.Y.), plaintiff alleges:

New York State Mental Hygiene Law 9.39 is used to admit individuals to a hospital solely for emergency observation and evaluation as a person "alleged" to have a mental illness. An admission under MHL 9.39 is not a formal adjudication that an individual suffers from a mental disease or defect. NYS Office of Mental Health Transmission of Mental Health Records to NICS. New York Mental Hygiene Law 7.094 authorizes the Office of Mental Health (OMH) to collect, retain, modify, or transmit data or records for inclusion in the NICS system for the purpose of responding to NICS queries regarding attempts to purchase or otherwise take possession of firearms, as defined in 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(3)….

Plaintiff contends that his Second and Fourteenth Amendment rights were, and are continuing to be, violated by the inclusion of his personal identifying information in the SAFE Act database [which New York maintains to "stop[] criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from buying a gun" -EV] and continued reporting to NICS and other third parties that Plaintiff is a prohibited person….

Plaintiff seeks a declaration from this Court that being "admitted", whether voluntarily or involuntarily, under MHL 9.39 does not constitute an "involuntary commitment to a mental institution" for purposes of terminating the rights protected by the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff seeks a declaration that MHL 7.09(j) is vague and overbroad and violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, as applied to Plaintiff….

The case is still in its early stages, so there has been no decision about the merits; but Monday Judge Nelson S. Román held that plaintiff could not litigate pseudonymously:

Fed. R. Civ. Pro § 10(a) provides in relevant in part that the caption of a complaint or pleading must name all the parties. This requirement serves the purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and should not be set aside lightly. "Identifying the parties to the proceeding is an important dimension of publicness. The people have a right to know who is using their courts." There are, however, limited exceptions which permit the use of pseudonyms….

Plaintiff seeks to proceed anonymously because the action involves "matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature, to wit, medical and mental health records and information." … There is little question that the instant case involves matters that are highly sensitive and of a personal nature—medical and mental health information are undoubtedly so. Moreover, Plaintiff is suing the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health in her official capacity, and therefore sues the government rather than a private entity. Furthermore, there is little to no prejudice to Defendant as she has not opposed Plaintiff's request and Plaintiff indicated he would provide his name to Defendant. Finally, Plaintiff's name and identity have been kept confidential from the public to date.

[But other] factors weigh against Plaintiff…. Plaintiff argues that his identification "poses a risk of retaliatory physical and mental harm to Plaintiff, and even more critically, to innocent non-parties including his family members." However, this risk of harm is vague and speculative. Plaintiff points to the combined "stigma" of mental health and Second Amendment rights but fails to elaborate on or provide any evidence of this supposed stigma. Nor does Plaintiff specify the nature of these potential harms. Plaintiff claims this is particularly true "within New York State's hostile anti-Second Amendment environment," and the Court is not entirely sure what Plaintiff means….

"… [T] here is a general presumption that parties' identities are public information." As implied by Plaintiff, the Second Amendment has fostered continued debate and discussion among the public in recent years. Accordingly, there will likely be widespread interest in Plaintiff's suit that challenges provisions of the New York State Mental Hygiene Law ("NY MHL") as unconstitutional under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. Admittedly, the identities of individuals who sue only the government and raise an abstract question of law may be largely irrelevant to the public's concern with the nature of the process. However, while Plaintiff's claims contest the constitutionality of a statute—certainly an abstract question of law—Plaintiff also argues the statute's constitutionality with respect to his specific circumstances. Plaintiff alleges that NY MHL § 9.39 is unconstitutional "as applied to Plaintiff." Accordingly, although the action appears to involve purely legal questions, disputes of fact may arise as the litigation progresses.

Finally, there are alternative mechanisms available to Plaintiff. "A plaintiff's confidentiality can be protected in multiple ways, including redaction of the documents and sealing, seeking a protective order, or entering into a confidentiality agreement." Accordingly, with regards to Plaintiff's argument that anonymity will create more transparency, the Court is confident that the parties can find a middle ground where the public has access to all pertinent information without the need for Plaintiff to proceed anonymously…. "Redacted and sealed submissions are routinely used in cases involving sensitive medical information." …

The Court notes that Second Circuit courts have routinely denied requests to proceed anonymously in similar circumstances…. "The fact that a case involves a medical issue is not a sufficient reason for allowing the use of a fictitious name, even though many people are understandably secretive about their medical problems." … Plaintiff has failed to make a sufficiently strong showing that this action "is an unusual case" and should be treated as an exception to the rule that each party must litigate under their names.

Here are P.D.'s specific factual allegations as to his own situation:

On or about September 25, 2020, Plaintiff was transported to Westchester Medical Center pursuant to MHL 9.41 for emergency admission for immediate observation and evaluation.

Plaintiff was admitted to Westchester Medical Center (WMC) under to MHL 9.39 for emergency observation and evaluation.

Plaintiff consistently denied any suicidal ideation during his admission to WMC.

While at WMC, Plaintiff was transferred from the mental health unit to the medical unit for the assessment and treatment of chest pain.

Plaintiff remained in the medical unit of WMC until his discharge on October 6, 2020.

By discharging Plaintiff and not converting Plaintiff's admission to an involuntary commitment under Article 9, the mental health professionals at WMC determined that Plaintiff was not a danger to himself or others. 13 The mental health professionals at WMC determined that Plaintiff did not meet the criteria for an involuntary commitment.

Plaintiff's status at WMC was never converted to an involuntary commitment and Plaintiff was never adjudicated by a court, and Plaintiff was never found to have a mental defect warranting a designation as a dangerous person.

Had the mental health professionals at WMC determined that Plaintiff was a danger to himself or others, Plaintiff would not have been discharged from WMC on October 6, 2020.

Had the mental health professionals at WMC determined that Plaintiff was a danger to himself or others, Plaintiff would have been involuntarily committed under MHL 9.37, which he was not.

Upon his discharge from WMC, attended a follow-up appointment with the Mental Health Association of Westchester (MHA Westchester) on October 8, 2020.

Plaintiff's MHA Westchester records indicate that he attended two assessment sessions where he continued to deny any suicidal ideations and denied the need for continuing mental health treatment.

Plaintiff's case with MHA was closed on October 30, 2020.

No mental health professional from MHA made a MHL 9.46 report about Plaintiff.

As a result of Plaintiff's hospital stay, on or about October 1, 2020 the Westchester County Clerk's Office [pistol license division] was notified that: "The New York State Office of Mental health has notified the Division of State Police that [Plaintiff] has been either: 1) adjudicated as a mental defective; or 2) involuntarily committed to a mental institution."

The Westchester County Attorney's Office (the "County") filed an administrative proceeding by way of Order to Show Cause with the Westchester County pistol licensing officer to revoke or suspend Plaintiff's New York State pistol license.