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In re M.W.

Supreme Court of Iowa

May 5, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF M.W., Alleged to be Seriously Mentally Impaired, M.W., Appellant.

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Christine Boyer, Judicial Hospitalization Referee and Marsha Bergan, District Court Judge.

         A patient involuntarily committed by a judicial hospitalization referee's order appeals his commitment.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Gretchen Witte Kraemer, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant State.

          Willie E. Townsend, Coralville, for appellee.

          WIGGINS, Justice.

         The State seeks further review following the court of appeals decision vacating the judicial hospitalization referee's involuntary hospitalization order. See Iowa Code ch. 229 (2015). The State challenges the court of appeals' conclusion that it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. We vacate the decision of the court of appeals and dismiss the appeal because neither the referee's order issued on December 8, 2015, nor the district court's order issued on December 9 are appealable as a matter of right pursuant to Iowa Rules of Appellate Procedure 6.103.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         M.W. is an adult who has a history of mental illness. Beginning in July 2014, M.W.'s guardian had him hospitalized for over a year at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC). In 2015, M.W.'s guardian placed him in Chatham Oaks, an Iowa City residential care facility. On December 4, M.W. attempted to return to the UIHC by walking approximately three miles through freezing temperatures while dressed unsuitably for the weather. After arriving at the UIHC, M.W. refused medications. A doctor at the UIHC, who was familiar with M.W. from the previous hospitalization, began involuntary commitment proceedings in order to compel treatment.

         The court scheduled a hearing for December 8. M.W. was served with a notice for the hearing but his guardian was not. The hearing was held on December 8. M.W.'s attorney moved to continue the hearing because the guardian had not been notified and was not present. The judicial hospitalization referee denied the motion, found M.W. was seriously mentally impaired, and ordered M.W. committed to the UIHC.

         M.W.'s attorney appealed to the district court from the denial of his motion to continue. On December 9, the district court held a brief hearing on the appeal and issued a ruling that same day. The district court determined that the referee did not abuse her discretion in denying M.W.'s motion to continue and declined to remand the case to the referee for another hearing. The district court further concluded Iowa Code chapter 229 does not require a guardian be served with a notice before the hearing, explaining such a notice would be contrary to the purpose of the time requirement in chapter 229 and delay a respondent's return to either liberty or essential mental health treatment. Finally, the court noted M.W. had the right to challenge the ruling, as well as all of the other rulings of the referee at a de novo hearing on the record before the district court. Accordingly, the district court scheduled a de novo hearing for December 22.

         On December 18, however, the UIHC requested M.W.'s release from involuntary hospitalization. The UIHC stated M.W. was compliant with his medications, and his guardian agreed with the new treatment plan. The district court thus dismissed the case. On December 21, M.W.'s attorney filed a withdrawal of appeal, stating, "[T]here is no reason to continue the legal process at the district court level, but will continue at the appellate court level." The court did not cancel the December 22 hearing, and when the parties did not appear, the district court entered an order stating that "the hearing in this matter [was] not pursued before the district court, " and therefore, the court would take no further action in the matter.

         On December 23, M.W. filed a notice of appeal to the supreme court indicating he was appealing the December 8 referee order and the December 9 district court order. On our own motion, we ordered the parties to file statements on jurisdiction. We explained that we were "concerned as to whether [we have] jurisdiction over the respondent's appeal" because M.W. filed a withdrawal of appeal to the district court on December 21, and no one appeared at the December 22 hearing.

         After receiving the parties' statements, we ordered the appeal proceed to briefing, but directed the parties to further develop their arguments on jurisdiction and mootness. We then transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals held that it had jurisdiction over the appeal because the referee's order of commitment was a final appealable order. The court of appeals also held that, although the case was moot because the district court had already dismissed the commitment proceedings against M.W., it found exceptions to the mootness doctrine. Finally, the court of appeals held M.W.'s guardian was entitled to notice of the commitment proceedings and thus vacated the referee's order.

         The State applied for further review, which we granted.

         II. Issue.

         M.W. raises several issues on appeal. Our first duty is to determine whether we have jurisdiction to consider and decide the appeal on its merits. Lloyd v. State, 251 N.W.2d 551, 558 (Iowa 1977). We find that jurisdiction is dispositive of this appeal, and therefore, we do not reach the merits.

         III. Jurisdiction.

         M.W. appeals two separate rulings made in the trial court. First, he appeals the referee's order of December 8, denying the motion to continue and committing M.W. to the UIHC after finding he was seriously mentally impaired. Second, he appeals the district court's order of December 9, affirming the denial of the continuance.

         The State contends appellate jurisdiction is lacking because M.W. abandoned appellate review when he withdrew his appeal to the district court on December 21 and failed to appear at the hearing on December 22. The State argues that the referee's order is not a final appealable order because Iowa Code section 229.21(3) provides that respondents are to appeal such orders to the district court. The State also argues ...

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