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Minnesota: Remedies for Civil Commitments are Limited

The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that a person who is indeterminately civilly committed as a Sexually Dangerous Person (SDP) or Sexual Psychopathic Personality (SPP) may not bring a motion seeking transfer or discharge from their commitment under Minn.R.Civ.P. 60.02, but may bring a Rule 60.02 motion to void a commitment for lack of jurisdiction, ineffective assistance of counsel and other limited claims that do not specifically request a transfer or discharge.

The state Supreme Court issued its ruling in the combined appeals of Peter G. Lonergan, an SDP, and Robert A. Kunshier, an SPP. Both filed a motion with the Dakota County District Court under Rule 60.02, which allows a court to “relieve a party or the party’s legal representative from a final judgment ... order, or proceeding.” The district court denied their motions, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

The first question addressed by the Supreme Court was whether the Commitment Act (Minn. Stat. § 253B (2010)) conflicted or was inconsistent with Rule 60.02. The Act permits civil commitment of 1) the chemically dependent, 2) mentally ill, 3) developmentally disabled, 4) mentally ill and dangerous to the public, 5) an SPP, or 6) an SDP. Persons committed under one of the first three categories may petition the court for release under Minn. Stat. § 253B.17, subd. 1 (2010).

Those in the other three categories must seek a “reduction of custody,” which the statute defines as a “transfer out of a secure treatment facility, a provisional discharge, or a discharge from commitment.” To seek a transfer or discharge, an SDP or SPP must petition a three-member Special Review Board. The Board then conducts a hearing and issues a recommendation to a three-member Judicial Appeal Panel. The SDP or SPP may seek a rehearing or reconsideration of the recommendation. The Panel then either issues an order adopting the Board’s recommendation or sets the matter for hearing. The Panel’s order may be appealed.

The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that relief under the Commitment Act is narrower than that provided via Rule 60.02. The Act is the “exclusive remedy” for SDPs and SPPs seeking a transfer or discharge from civil commitment, thus to seek that relief they must follow the Act’s procedures.

Relief under Rule 60.02 may be sought by SDPs and SPPs if it does not interfere with a patient’s rehabilitation or place public safety at risk. Rule 60.02 motions that seek to cure a procedural or jurisdictional defect during the commitment process fit within that category, but not motions seeking transfer or release from custody.

The Supreme Court concluded that an SDP or SPP cannot use Rule 60.02 to seek a transfer or discharge, or to raise a claim that would present a “distinct conflict” with the Commitment Act or “frustrate the purpose” of the Act. However, a Rule 60.02 motion seeking, for example, to cure a procedural or jurisdictional defect during the commitment process, such as a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel or lack of subject matter jurisdiction, would not necessarily conflict with the purpose of the Act.

Therefore, Lonergan’s and Kunshier’s appeals were remanded to the Court of Appeals to determine what, if any, non-discharge claims they raised in their Rule 60.02 motions. See: In re Civil Commitment of Peter Gerard Lonergan, 811 N.W.2d 635 (Minn. 2012).

On October 9, 2012, the Court of Appeals concluded “that Lonergan may raise adequacy- or denial-of-treatment claims by a rule 60.02(e) motion,” and remanded the case to the district court for consideration of those claims. The appellate court found that Lonergan’s other claims had been properly dismissed or would be more appropriately raised “in a section 1983 action or a habeas corpus petition.” See: In re Civil Commitment of Lonergan, 2012 Minn.App.Unpub. LEXIS 979 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2012).

In a separate ruling, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Kunshier’s Rule 60.02 motion challenging his civil commitment, finding that his claims “are essentially claims for discharge, not an attempt to vindicate a right to treatment.... As such, they fall within the supreme court’s prohibition against making transfer or discharge claims in a rule 60.02 motion.” Although Kunshier had also raised an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the appellate court found it was “both untimely and lacking in merit.” See: In re Civil Commitment of Kunshier, 2012 Minn.App.Unpub. LEXIS 987 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2012).

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Related legal cases

In re Civil Commitment of Kunshier

In re Civil Commitment of Peter Gerard Lonergan

In re Civil Commitment of Lonergan