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State ex rel. West Park Hospital Dist. v. Skoric

Supreme Court of Wyoming

March 25, 2014

STATE OF WYOMING ex rel. WEST PARK HOSPITAL DISTRICT and YELLOWSTONE BEHAVIORAL HEALTH CENTER, Appellants (Petitioners),
v.
BRYAN A. SKORIC, Park County and Prosecuting Attorney, in his official capacity, Appellee (Respondent)

Page 335

Appeal from the District Court of Park County. The Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge.

For Appellants: Larry B. Jones and Chris Edwards of Simpson, Kepler & Edwards, LLC, the Cody, Wyoming division of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh and Jardine, P.C., Cody, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Jones.

For Appellee: James F. Davis, Deputy Park County Attorney, Cody, Wyoming.

Before KITE, C.J., and HILL, VOIGT,[*] BURKE, and DAVIS, JJ.

OPINION

Page 336

DAVIS, Justice.

[¶1] In these consolidated appeals, Appellants West Park Hospital District and Yellowstone Behavioral Health Center challenge the district court's denial of their petition for a writ of mandamus directing the Park County Attorney to commence court proceedings and to appear at initial emergency detention hearings under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 25-10-109 (LexisNexis 2013), as well as to appear and prosecute the case in chief at the involuntary hospitalization hearings under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 25-10-110 (LexisNexis 2013). We agree with Appellants that the statutes in question do require a county attorney's office to participate in civil commitment proceedings as they claim it should. However, we also find that the statutes are ambiguous, and that the district court therefore did not abuse its discretion by refusing to issue a writ of mandamus. Therefore, although we disagree with the district court as to the county attorney's duty in civil commitment cases, we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Two interrelated issues are raised in this appeal:

1. What are the statutorily required duties of a Wyoming county attorney in civil commitment proceedings under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § § 25-10-109 and 110?
2. Did the district court abuse its discretion in denying Appellants' petition for writ of mandamus?

FACTS

[¶3] West Park Hospital District is a hospital district formed under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-2-401. It frequently houses patients believed to be mentally ill when they are temporarily detained pending civil commitment hearings, and if they are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, pending transportation to the Wyoming State Hospital.[1] Yellowstone Behavioral Health Center (Yellowstone) is a Wyoming non-profit corporation which furnishes mental health services throughout the Big Horn Basin, and particularly in the emergency room of West Park. Yellowstone provides examiners who evaluate patients to determine whether they must be detained for their own safety or that of the community until an involuntary commitment hearing can be held under Title 25, Chapter 10 of the Wyoming statutes.

[¶4] Appellee Bryan A. Skoric is the duly elected Park County and Prosecuting Attorney. The Park County Attorney's office has historically represented the public's interest in emergency detention and involuntary hospitalization hearings under Title 25. The county attorney or his deputies filed applications for involuntary hospitalization and appeared at emergency detention hearings under § 25-10-109 as well as involuntary hospitalization hearings under § 25-10-110. If the assigned attorney from the county attorney's

Page 337

office believed detention and/or involuntary hospitalization appropriate, he or she would present the case for hospitalization by making an opening statement and closing argument, conducting direct examinations, cross-examining adverse witnesses, and preparing all necessary paperwork. Once notified that an individual was being detained on an emergency basis under § 109, the office handled all necessary commitment proceedings on behalf of the State, commencing the case in the district court and prosecuting it to completion, whether it involved just an emergency detention hearing or proceeded to an involuntary commitment hearing under § 110(h).

[¶5] In 2013, following our decision in In re RB, 2013 WY 15, 294 P.3d 24 (Wyo. 2013), described below, Mr. Skoric reconsidered the extent of his office's participation in civil commitment proceedings. He determined that it lacked statutory authority to participate in emergency detention hearings under § 109, and that appearing in the public's interest at an involuntary hospitalization hearing under § 110 did not require him to present the case in chief. He concluded instead that a county attorney was only required to observe commitment proceedings and ensure that the statues are followed at a § 110 hearing, presumably meaning that he or his deputies could sit in the back of the courtroom and speak up if something untoward took place. He feared that if his office handled cases as it had in the past, he and his deputies would not be entitled to prosecutorial immunity from civil claims, and that they could be subject to criminal liability under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 25-10-126.[2]

[¶6] The effect of the Park County Attorney's decision was to place the burden of going forward with emergency detention and involuntary hospitalization hearings on employees of or attorneys paid by Appellants. This led Appellants to file a Verified Petition for Writ of Mandamus pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-30-101 et seq., asking the district court to compel the Park County Attorney to proceed in the same way he had for many years. They conceded, as they do in this appeal, that the county attorney has discretion to decline to pursue emergency detention or involuntary commitment in a particular case in which he believes either to be inappropriate, but claim that he could not simply refuse to appear in all such proceedings or decline to present any case for involuntary commitment while just watching the proceedings from the sideline.

[¶7] Mr. Skoric moved to dismiss the petition for a writ of mandamus, arguing that the writ could not be granted because the law did not impose a duty upon him or his office to participate in emergency detention hearings or to present a case for involuntary commitment. After holding a hearing and considering the arguments presented by the parties, the district court denied Appellants' application for the writ. Adhering to the strict standards for ordering such extraordinary relief, it concluded:

The issue in In the Interest of RB was the authority of the county attorney to object to the proposed release of an involuntarily hospitalized person. However, Justice Davis, writing for a unanimous court set forth in detail the rules of statutory construction and an analysis of the role of the county attorney in Title 25 proceedings that this Court considers dispositive, ...

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