Were you denied fresh air time, food, water, proper clothing, personal items, or access to the restroom?
Were you denied visits from your loved ones?
Were you denied accommodations for your disability?
Were you deliberately humiliated in any way?
Did the staff write private, sensitive information about you in your medical records, that should not have been put in writing?
Were you mistreated by junior doctors who were not properly trained or supervised?
Did you experience discrimination due to your race, gender, income, religion or sexual orientation?
Did the State Office of Mental Health fail to investigate your complaint?
Have you had difficulty finding a lawyer who will take your case?
If so, then you are not alone!
Here are some examples of other plaintiffs' cases (not an exhaustive list); you may recognize some of the scenarios if you have been an inpatient on a psych ward:
Female, 30s. Brought by police to a Long Island hospital after argument at home with her mother. Sexually assaulted by orderly; has laboratory report as evidence. Police, DA and State all stalled complaint, then covered it up. Now unable to graduate from nursing school due to involuntary commitment on her record.
Male, 60s. Senior citizen committed to a Queens hospital when doctor with poor English skills misunderstood his remarks as dangerous. Case in progress in State court.
Female, 60s. Retired nurse, committed to a Long Island hospital for depression. Staff locked bathroom at night so she had to urinate in her bed.
Female, 30s. Sexually assaulted and impregnated by a janitor at a Queens hospital where she was an inpatient.
Female, 30s. Involuntarily committed to a Staten Island hospital when staff misinterpreted her epileptic seizure as a mental health crisis.
Female, 60s. Arrested and taken to a Manhattan hospital by police, with 90 year old mother, when landlord tried to evict them. Hospitalized for a month on suicide ward. When discharged, found their apartment had been taken over and possessions discarded.
Female, 50s. Went to a Brooklyn hospital voluntarily for diabetes care, but was involuntarily committed. Deprived of food. Tried to escape and was restrained. Hospital claimed not to have her medical records.
Male, 40s. Assaulted by staff & involuntarily committed from clinic when he refused to remove his jacket. Recorded attack on hidden audio recorder. Held for a week at a Queens hospital. Case currently in federal court.
None of these patients has any known history of violence. None of them had been convicted or even accused of any crime. Their complaints have been ignored and covered up by authorities. Hospitals charged thousands of dollars per day, primarily to Medicaid or Medicare, for their so-called “care”. Such mistreatment meets the definition of indefinite detention and human trafficking. To date, more than 30 patients are eligible for the case, and more are calling every day. The demographics of the group are mixed (e.g. race, age, gender, disability, location, religion, sexual orientation).
Here are some thoughts to guide you in how to prepare your case; this will help us to help you add your case to our class action. It will also help you if you decide not to participate in our class action, and go it alone. Please keep in mind that we are not lawyers, so any advice we offer here is based on our own experience of learning the hard way, is not professional advice and you must exercise your own judgment about whether and how to use it.
This is how some of us went about preparing our cases, which we hope will help you:
1. Write up what happened to you in as detailed a way as possible: names, dates, times, places... who, what, when, where, how and why. Do this as coherently as you can, when you are feeling well. We didn't have any help writing ours, but you may be able to enlist family and friends to help you. This can be a lonely process because other people can't understand the horrors that you experienced unless they have been through something equally traumatic.
2. File a police report if you can. This depends on what happened to you; they may refuse to file one. Looking up the state penal code online can help to decide whether it is worth it to try this. We didn't have any success with the police; they seemed to think penal code doesn't apply inside a hospital (which we have since established is untrue). If you can get the police to follow up, you may be able to convince the District Attorney to pursue a criminal case, otherwise you can file a civil case.
3. File complaints with the hospital itself, and every regulatory authority you can think of: the State Office of Mental Health, JCAHO (joint commission on accreditation of hospitals), the Better Business Bureau, your congressman, etc. This can be extremely demoralizing because ignorant people will assume that if you are a psychiatric patient, then you must be crazy enough to be making up your story. Send them as much proof as you can of your abuse experience: photos, excerpts from your medical records, correspondence, etc. Chances are that the hospital will deny any wrongdoing (which is effectively inviting you to sue it), and the state Office of Mental Health will say there is nothing further that they can do (which is effectively acknowledging that you will sue the hospital). This is called "the administrative review process", and it is difficult to be successful in court until you do this.
4. Get a copy of your medical records from the hospital. Under federal and state laws, the hospital has a limited period of time to send the records to you on request - generally 10 days to a month; if it doesn't, you can complain to the state Office of Mental Health. You will need to fill out a form and send it to the hospital to formally request the records. Compare your experience to what the doctors said about you; you may be surprised by the differences. If the doctors reported anything that you believe to be incorrect, you can write to the hospital to request that it be corrected. NB: if your medical records say that you were dangerous, you will probably have an uphill battle with your lawsuit unless you have solid evidence that you were not.
5. Look up the state mental health laws. Find out which ones were violated in your situation. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA Act) may also apply to you, if you have proof that you are disabled by your physical or mental condition.
6. Google "legal aid" or "mental health legal aid" etc. You may be able to find free legal assistance nearby. We didn't have much success with lawyers in private practice, who hardly ever take psychiatric cases. Legal aid societies don't have the resources to take every case, and cherry-pick the ones that appeal to them politically. This is the most frustrating part of the whole process. These lawyers have lists of cases in which they have been involved in the past, which can be useful because you may be able to use them as templates for your case.
7. If you can't find any legal assistance, try to find other cases which are similar to yours. Your local public law library can be very helpful; it should have access to two databases called Lexis and Westlaw, which have all the cases you could possibly want to read, and the librarian can show you how to do a search. This is a lot of work. You can also sign up for a free account on the PACER system, which is a huge online library of cases that you can view without traveling to the public library. The search function isn't very good on PACER but at least you can view it from home rather than going to the library. Your state's court system probably has its own online case database as well.
8. Think carefully about whether to file your case in state or federal court; it depends on what your condition is, where you live and what the defendants did to you. If you can get any advice from the legal aid societies on this, even if they won't represent you, it would be worth asking them. Looking at where similar cases were filed (federal vs. state court) can also help. It's our understanding that if the ADA Act applies to you, or if you were abused in a state hospital, you can file in federal court. There are a few other situations in which you can file in federal court even if you were in a private hospital, which you might be able to understand by reading Lauren's case and others like it.
9. If you can't find a lawyer, you have the option of filing a case directly with the court, which is called "pro se" (pronounced "pro say"). There should be a pro se clerk at the court who can help you with this. This process is incredibly intimidating; in our view, the judicial system is designed to discourage pro se plaintiffs. It helps to keep lawyers in business. But fortunately in America, you still have the right for your case to be heard (although given the way things are going in this country, that right will probably be the next one to be taken away by our government). Your complaint doesn't have to be written in legalese; plain English is fine. In fact, you don't even have to type it; you can submit it in handwriting if you have to, as long as it is coherent and detailed enough to be credible. For example, if you only say you were abused in such and such a hospital, but you don't give the names of the people who did it, when it happened, and exactly what they did to you, you probably won't get very far with your case.
10. Be aware that if you are a representing yourself, anything you submit to the court is on the public record, including your address, phone number, Social Security number, etc. It's like involuntarily being listed in the White Pages phone book, along with your personal life story. Ask the court clerk how you might be able to leave personal contact info out of your public record if you're worried about privacy.
11. The defendants will appoint lawyers, who likely will then create reams of documents written in complicated language, denying everything you've said in your complaint. Don't worry, they have to do something to justify the $500+ an hour that they charge their clients. They will pull all sorts of dirty tricks including lying in the most blatant way (e.g. saying that there was "no deviation from the standard of care" when there obviously was), to subtle ways (e.g. making deliberately false inferences from things you said in your complaint). You can ask the judge to allow you to amend your complaint, to correct these misinterpretations. If you have a hearing in court, the defendants' lawyers will be patronizing, rude and will try to intimidate you -- just ignore this; they are baiting you. They will ask the judge to dismiss your case, and then you can respond to say why it shouldn't be dismissed. They are allowed to fire one more document at you (yes, annoyingly, they get the last word), then the judge will consider whether your case has merit. If you have the guts and the determination to get to this point, and you have some solid evidence, your case probably has a good chance of surviving to the next stage.
The important thing is that if you believe you have been seriously wronged, never give up hope of seeing justice served. There are many hurdles to jump in this process, and if you're not willing to put in the necessary time and be prepared to go to trial, with all the stress and invasion of privacy that entails, then you probably shouldn't bother doing this. Your anger about the way you were mistreated can keep you going even when the process becomes very discouraging.
Importantly, get support to stay well while you are doing this. The process is stressful, which can adversely affect your health.