NYC: Stakeholders file emergency request for
Temp Restraining Order (TRO)

December 9, 2022

Crain’s Health Pulse, 12/9

A coalition of stakeholders, including New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC, Community Access and people with disabilities, filed an emergency request Thursday to immediately halt Mayor Eric Adams’s new plan to try to address severe mental illness in the city.

The request, which is a motion for a temporary restraining order against the city, is part of federal litigation that challenges the city’s use of police officers as front-line responders dealing with people with mental illnesses, or who are perceived to have mental illnesses. The litigation ultimately aims to remove police from that role and rely instead on mental health professionals and peers.

The coalition says that Adams’s directive violates the rights of people with disabilities, the U.S. Constitution and multiple civil rights laws, and is “wholly unworkable—premised on the availability of hospital beds and community mental health services that simply do not exist,” according to a release.

The mayor’s plan re-emphasizes that police officers, emergency medical responders and outreach workers are authorized under existing state law to transport people who appear to be unable to meet their basic needs to the hospital involuntarily. It focuses on people who have refused voluntary treatment but pose a danger to themselves.

Attorneys from several firms, including Shearman & Sterling and Marashi Legal, are working on the case, arguing that having police officers detain people who are perceived as unable to care for themselves is “unacceptable and unlawful,” said Richard Schwed, a partner at Shearman.

Ruth Lowenkron, the director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, told Crain’s a temporary restraining order would stop the mayor’s plan on a “very expedited basis with just about no proofs before the judge.”

The attorneys on the case have to show the judge the harms their clients are facing because of the issue, she said, and the judge could sign off on the TRO without hearing from the other side of the issue.

The attorneys are waiting to hear the court’s decision about the TRO, she added.

Regardless of whether the judge grants the TRO, the next step in the process would be a preliminary injunction hearing with involvement from both the coalition and the city, which would also happen on an expedited basis. From there, the court would decide whether a halt on the mayor’s plan would be more permanent, Lowenkron said.

She added that the attorneys representing the plaintiffs have asked for more detailed information from the city about the mayor’s plan, on an expedited basis, in order to show the court why the plan is problematic.

The coalition argues that Adams’ plan is unconstitutional because, while the constitution requires people to present a danger to themselves or others, the plan says that authorized police, emergency responders and outreach workers can involuntarily transport people who cannot meet their basic needs. Meanwhile, Adams said at a press conference last week that the idea that someone needs to present a danger to themselves or others is a “misunderstanding” and a “myth.”

When asked about that discrepancy, Lowenkron said the mayor’s argument is incorrect.

“His statement of it being a misconception is a misconception,” she said. “That’s exactly what this litigation is about: that the mayor [is] ignoring well-established constitutional and New York state mental hygiene law, that absolutely do require a danger to self or others.”

Involuntary transport should only happen if a person’s inability to take care of their basic needs rises to the level of being a danger to themselves, she added.

Adams’s plan includes several proposals for hospital policy changes that would require changes to state law, including mandatory Kendra’s Law eligibility screenings for psychiatric patients, and a requirement that hospitals must notify patients’ community providers when they are admitted or released. These policies aim to improve communications between inpatient and outpatient providers. A Crain’s investigation earlier in the fall revealed communications have been historically disjointed, leaving patients without the care they need.

Last month Crain’s reported that more than 1,000 New Yorkers living with a serious mental illness are on waiting lists for government-funded mental health and social service programs, and that many psychiatric patients who are denied admission to a hospital bed and are discharged from the emergency room effectively disappear.

Advocates have been critical of Adams’s plan since he announced it last week, saying it is “draconian” and rebuking the involvement of police in mental health crises. Adams has since defended the plan, saying it is a tailored approach and would not violate laws.

Following the mayor’s announcement, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and City Council member Linda Lee, who chairs the Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction Committee, shared a response that questions the specifics of the plan and asks for clarity.

“Our city needs a robust response to this crisis, but how we respond matters greatly. We have many questions and need to see more concrete details related to the mayor’s announcement,” the statement reads. “The vague and broad definitions surrounding mental illness and the delegated authority to nonmental health professionals for involuntary removal and admission raise serious concerns. The way this new policy will be implemented and the agencies and individuals being tasked with this response need to be more carefully considered.”

Despite her challenges to his plan, Lowenkron did not completely criticize Adams.

“We are not trying to say that the mayor is not right to think about people who have mental health issues and that we need to be doing something for them,” she said. “I loved his statement when he said no longer are we going to pass by people who are on the streets and having mental health problems and do nothing about it. And if that were all he said, I would applaud.”

The city estimates that 250,000 adult New Yorkers have a serious mental illness. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. —Jacqueline Neber