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HUGE Defense Win: SCOW overrules S.L.L. and reverses default judgment in Chapter 51 appeal

Waukesha County v. M.A.C., 2024 WI 30, 7/5/24, reversing an unpublished court of appeals decision; case activity (including briefs)

In a big defense win, 6 justices agree that M.A.C. is entitled to relief, with four justices joining together to dismantle SCOW’s prior decision in S.L.L. with respect to notice and default judgment in Chapter 51 proceedings.

In 2022, Waukesha County sought to obtain recommitment and medication orders against M.A.C., who had been (nominally) under their care since 2020. (¶8). However, as M.A.C. was homeless, she was not served with any paperwork advising her of these proceedings; accordingly, SCOW holds there is “no evidence that M.A.C. knew about the hearing.” (¶1). In the run-up to that final hearing, two court-appointed examiners filed reports recommending involuntary medication, although both examiners acknowledged they had been unable to convey the statutorily-required explanation of advantages, disadvantages and alternatives given their inability to contact M.A.C. (¶¶15-16).

When M.A.C. did not appear for the final hearing, the circuit court found M.A.C. in default. (¶19). Relying on the reports filed by the examiners, the circuit court concluded M.A.C. met the criteria for recommitment. (Id.). It also made a finding that, contrary to those reports, M.A.C. had received an explanation of the advantages, disadvantages, and alternatives to medication. (¶20). The circuit court therefore signed an order for involuntary medication. (Id.).

On appeal, M.A.C. presents three issues for review:

Notice of Hearing

M.A.C.’s first argument is that she did not receive proper notice, arguing that providing notice to counsel alone is insufficient under the plain statutory text. (¶24). Applying statutory construction principles, SCOW agrees with M.A.C. As to the notice of the  recommitment hearing, § 51.20(10)(a) states that “the petitioner’s counsel shall notify the subject individual and his or her counsel of the time and place of the final hearing.” SCOW holds that this “and” is unambiguous and clearly conveys a legislative command that both the person and the attorney must be served. (¶28). That reading tracks with the broader context of Chapter 51.20, which uses this “and” formulation four distinct times. (¶29).

The County, for its part, disagrees with that interpretation and argues that while this statute informs the reader “who” must receive notice, it does not say “how” service must be accomplished. (¶30). It points to the rules of civil procedure, which expressly “allow serving counsel rather than serving the party that counsel represents.” (¶31). SCOW disagrees with this argument, however, given the existence of § 51.20(10)(c), which states that the rules of civil procedure apply to Chapter 51 proceedings “except as otherwise provided” in Chapter 51. (¶32). Here, the specific personal service requirement in Chapter 51 therefore preempts the general civil procedure rule. (Id.). 

Of course, as SCOW acknowledges, this is not the first time it has addressed this issue. In Waukesha County v. S.L.L., SCOW held that notice to counsel was sufficient. SCOW holds that S.L.L. was “unsound in principle,” however, as it did not “adequately address the plain text of Wis. Stat. § 51.20(10)(a).” (¶34). In fact, the parties in that case did not focus their arguments on the (10)(a) language–instead emphasizing a different statute–and the majority opinion did not analyze this statutory text, except in a footnote. (¶35).

Next, SCOW also assesses whether M.A.C. received proper notice of the involuntary medication portion of the proceedings as required by § 51.61(1)(g)3. Because this statute uses identical language indicating that both the person and their counsel must be served with notice, SCOW likewise holds that this statute plainly and unambiguously requires that the subject individual receive notice of the medication hearing. (¶38).

Default Judgment 

Although SCOW could theoretically cease its analysis having concluded that M.A.C. did not receive proper notice, it also addresses the circuit court’s default finding and concludes that “default judgment is not available at recommitment hearings or at involuntary medication hearings.” (¶41). SCOW begins with the overarching principle that the law disfavors the “ultimate sanction” of a default judgment rather than affording parties their day in court. (¶43). Notably, Chapter 51 does not include a default judgment provision. (¶44). Instead, the legislature has provided a different “tool for circuit courts to use when a subject individual fails to appear for the recommitment hearing.” (Id.). Under § 51.20(10)(d), the legislature has authorized the circuit court to enter a detention order upon a failure to appear. Importantly, SCOW holds “that the detention order is the outer limit on the circuit court’s power.” (¶46).

Thus, when a person fails to appear for a recommitment hearing, the circuit court “may take evidence about the cause of the nonappearance.” (Id.). “Based on that evidence, the court then has two options: issue a detention order or adjourn the hearing.” (¶47). If a detention order is issued, the hearing “would be held within seven days of detention.” (Id.). (SCOW leaves it as an open question whether the detention order tolls the deadline for holding the final hearing). If an adjournment is granted, then the court has until the end of the commitment period to hold the final hearing before it loses competency to proceed. (Id.).

To buttress its conclusion that default judgment is not available here, SCOW relies on a legislative command in § 51.20(10)(c) that the court “shall” hold a final hearing and reasons that a default judgment would therefore “undermine the legislature’s mandate that the court hold a hearing.” (¶48). It also holds that, given the important liberty interests at stake in such a proceeding, it would be inappropriate to “read default judgment into chapter 51’s recommitment process.” (¶50).

Once again, SCOW overrules S.L.L.’s contrary holding, given that the S.L.L. Court erroneously focused on the “permissive nature of detention orders.” (¶51). The S.L.L. Court therefore ignored a “textual suggestion that detention orders preclude default judgment in Wis. Stat. § 51.20(10)(c)[,]” as that statute only incorporates civil rules to the extent that that they do not conflict with the more specific procedures in Chapter 51. (¶52). As the detention order is a more specific procedure, this is a rule that “otherwise provides a procedure for courts to follow” and therefore preempts application of the default judgment rule found in civil procedure statutes. (¶53). “In the end, the S.L.L. court’s conclusion runs contrary to our case law emphasizing the severity of default judgment and fails to heed the text of Wis. Stat. § 51.20(10)(c).” (¶54).

As to the medication hearing, SCOW holds that a default judgment is not available given the plain text of § 51.61(1)(g)3, which requires the circuit court to hold “a hearing” which conforms to the essentials of due process and includes substantive components, like the right to present and cross-examine witnesses. (¶56). SCOW therefore holds that, “If a circuit court were allowed to enter a default judgment, it would undermine the legislature’s directive to hold a fair hearing.” (¶57).

Sufficiency of the Evidence for Medication Order 

First, SCOW holds that a litigant does not forfeit a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence for a medication order by not raising such a challenge in the circuit court, as § 805.17(4) clearly permits sufficiency issues to be raised for the first time on direct appeal. (¶67). Relying on its holdings in Melanie L. that the evidence cannot be perfunctory and the County must actually prove the person received an explanation of the advantages, disadvantages, and alternatives with respect to medication, SCOW holds that the circuit court erred when it concluded M.A.C. had received this explanation given that the doctors’ reports “show that the opposite is true. (¶70).

Justice Hagedorn concurs with the result, asserting that M.A.C. is entitled to relief because she received insufficient notice. (¶73). He seeks to distinguish, rather than overrule S.L.L. and does not believe it was necessary for the Court to resolve the other two issues presented.

Justice R.G. Bradley believes that the record was insufficient to support the medication order. (¶77). On the remaining issues, however, she harshly rebukes her colleagues for overruling S.L.L. 

Finally, Chief Justice Ziegler files a lengthy dissent in which she holds that M.A.C. should lose on all three issues while harshly denigrating her colleagues’ decision to overrule recent precedent.

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  • David Franker July 11, 2024, 10:46 am


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