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In the Matter of J.G.

May 15, 2013


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Paul D. Miller, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vaitheswaran, P.J.

J.G. appeals her involuntary commitment under Iowa Code chapter 125 (2011). REVERSED.

Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and Mullins, JJ.

J.G. appeals an order finding her to be a "chronic substance abuser"*fn1 and ordering outpatient evaluation and treatment.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

J.G.'s mother filed an application seeking J.G.'s involuntary hospitalization for chronic substance abuse. See Iowa Code §125.75 (2011). She supported the application with an affidavit attesting to her daughter's alcoholism and attempted suicide. She also attested that J.G. had a heart condition for which surgery was scheduled but later postponed because her "liver levels were to[o] high." Included with the application was a second affidavit signed by J.G.'s grandfather and containing similar attestations.

The district court issued an order for immediate custody and transport, and set the application for hearing. Follow-up testing revealed that J.G.'s blood alcohol concentration was .207 and her liver enzymes were "markedly elevated . . . consistent with excessive alcohol consumption." J.G. was placed in a detoxification unit at a substance abuse treatment center. A urine sample taken on her admission to the facility tested positive for marijuana.

After the first of two evidentiary hearings, the judicial hospitalization referee found J.G. to be a chronic substance abuser and ordered her placed at the facility on an outpatient basis for "evaluation and appropriate treatment." On appeal to the district court, which conducted a second de novo hearing pursuant to Iowa Code section 229.21(3)(c), the court ruled that J.G. was a chronic substance abuser under what was formerly Iowa Code section 125.2(5)(a) and again ordered her to undergo outpatient evaluation and treatment. J.G. moved for an expanded ruling, which the court denied. This appeal followed.

II. Mootness

As a preliminary matter, the State contends the issues on appeal are moot because J.G. was discharged from outpatient treatment and the district court filed an order terminating the commitment. J.G. disagrees, asserting the appeal is not moot in light of the "collateral effects a commitment may have."

In general, an appeal is moot if the "issue becomes nonexistent or academic and, consequently, no longer involves a justiciable controversy." State v. Hernandez--Lopez, 639 N.W.2d 226, 234 (Iowa 2002). Ordinarily, we will not review moot issues, but there are exceptions. In re B.B., 826 N.W.2d 425, 428-29 (Iowa 2013).

In B.B., 826 N.W.2d at 428, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the question of "whether an appeal from a finding that a person is seriously mentally impaired under chapter 229 becomes moot when the person is released from involuntary commitment and the proceedings are terminated." The court noted that other jurisdictions had adopted an exception to the mootness doctrine "if a judgment left standing will cause the appellant to suffer continuing adverse collateral consequences," including "the accompanying stigma" of an involuntary commitment. Id. at 429. The court adopted that exception, holding, "a party who has been adjudicated seriously mentally impaired and involuntarily committed is presumed to suffer collateral consequences justifying appellate review." Id. The court explained that the State could rebut the presumption by showing "'some number of prior involuntary commitment orders.'" Id. at 432 (quoting In re Joan K., 273 P.3d 594, 598 (Alaska 2012)).

This appeal does not involve an involuntary commitment for a "serious mental impairment" under Iowa Code chapter 229 but court-ordered treatment for chronic substance abuse under Iowa Code chapter 125. Nonetheless, we believe the rationale for adopting the collateral consequences exception to the mootness doctrine applies equally to chapter 125 proceedings.

First, the court has interpreted these chapters similarly. See In re E.J.H., 493 N.W.2d 841, 843 (Iowa 1992) ("We believe these same principles [governing involuntary commitment for mental illness] govern the involuntary commitment of a chronic substance abuser."); see also In re R.P., 606 N.W.2d 15, 17 (Iowa 2000) (evaluating procedures for the involuntary commitment or treatment of chronic substance abusers and stating "The Supreme Court has held that civil commitment for any purpose constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty requiring due process protection." (citing Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 425 (1979)). Second, the stigma associated with adjudication as a chronic substance abuser is not materially different from the stigma attending an adjudication based on a serious mental impairment. Indeed, the Iowa legislature's recent amendments to chapter 125 essentially equate substance abuse with mental illness, by defining "substance-related disorder" as "a diagnosable ...

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