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You can search the entire site. or go to the recent opinions, or the chronological or subject indices. In the Matter of Tracy C. (4/22/2011) sp-6555

In the Matter of Tracy C. (4/22/2011) sp-6555, 249 P3d 1085

        Notice:  This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the PACIFIC REPORTER. 
        Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 
        K   Street,   Anchorage,   Alaska   99501,   phone   (907)   264-0608,   fax   (907)   264-0878,   email 
        corrections@appellate.courts.state.ak.us. 

                 THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA 

In the Matter of the Necessity                  )       Supreme Court No. S-13719 
for the Hospitalization of                      ) 
                                                )       Superior Court No. 3AN-09-01389 PR 
TRACY C.                                        ) 
                                                )       O P I N I O N 
                                                ) 
                                                )       No. 6555 - April 22, 2011 

                Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third 
                Judicial District, Anchorage, Stephanie E. Joannides, Judge. 

                Appearances:       Douglas Moody, Assistant Public Defender, 
                and    Quinlan     Steiner,   Public    Defender,     Anchorage,      for 
                Tracy   C.     Megan   R.   Webb,   Assistant   Attorney   General, 
                Anchorage, and Daniel S. Sullivan, Attorney General, Juneau, 
                for Alaska Psychiatric Institute. 

                Before: Carpeneti, Chief Justice, Fabe, Winfree, Christen, and 
                Stowers, Justices. 

                FABE, Justice. 

I.      INTRODUCTION 

                Tracy C. was committed involuntarily for 30 days to the Alaska Psychiatric 
Institute (API).1   She appeals the commitment order, arguing that because her condition 

had stabilized as a result of treatment between the time of her admission to API and her 

commitment hearing, it was error for the superior court to find that she was gravely 

        1       Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the parties. 

----------------------- Page 2-----------------------

disabled.   Although Tracy's claim is moot, the public interest exception applies because 

Tracy raises a question of statutory interpretation that would benefit from resolution. We 

conclude (1) that an order granting a petition for involuntary commitment must be based 

on the patient's condition at the time of the commitment hearing rather than at the time 

of the patient's admission to the treatment facility; (2) that in determining the patient's 

condition at the time of the commitment hearing the trial court can consider the patient's 

recent   conduct   and   conditions   as   well   as   the   patient's   symptoms   at   the   time   of   the 

hearing; and (3) that the superior court correctly applied the involuntary commitment 

statute in this case.   We thus affirm the order of the superior court granting the petition 

for Tracy's 30-day involuntary commitment. 

II.     FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS 

                On October 22, 2009, Tracy's husband filed a petition to initiate involuntary 

commitment proceedings against Tracy.  Tracy's husband stated in the petition that his 

wife had been diagnosed with "psychotic disorder not otherwise specified" and that her 

refusal   to   take   medication   for   this   disorder   was   leading   to   increasingly   erratic   and 

dangerous behavior.         Among other allegations, he reported that Tracy had been fired 

from her job; was spending large sums of money erratically; was leaving the house 

during the middle of the night; was making repeated phone calls to 911 and federal 

government agencies alleging that she was being watched; and was claiming that her 

doctors and husband were trying to poison her. 

                On October 23, in response to the petition, the superior court ordered that 

Tracy be taken to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) and that API conduct a screening 

evaluation of Tracy and report its findings to the court within 48 hours.               Later that day 

Dr. Dan Muschevici, a psychiatrist at API, filed a petition for 30-day commitment after 

evaluating Tracy. The petition stated that Tracy was gravely disabled and likely to cause 

harm to herself or others, and that there was not a less restrictive treatment alternative 

                                                  -2-                                             6555
 

----------------------- Page 3-----------------------

that would be adequate.          Where the petition asked for "facts and specific behavior" 

supporting these allegations, Dr. Muschevici wrote that Tracy had a history of bipolar I 

disorder and had been hospitalized at API three times in the previous month.                   He went 

on to explain that Tracy had previously refused treatment, that she was having "a new 

manic and psychotic episode" with "disorganized behavior" and "impaired judgment," 

that she could not care for herself, and that she "need[ed] inpatient stabilization."  The 

superior court scheduled a commitment hearing for October 27 and appointed the Alaska 

Public Defender Agency to represent Tracy. 

                At   the   hearing   on   October   27,   a   probate   master   heard   testimony   from 

Dr. Muschevici, as well as Tracy's husband and Tracy herself.  On direct examination, 

Dr. Muschevici testified that he had diagnosed Tracy with "[b]ipolar I disorder: [m]ost 

recent episode manic, severe with psychotic features" and that this diagnosis qualifies as 
a mental illness.2    Dr. Muschevici noted that the October 23 hospitalization was Tracy's 

third admission to API in the past month, that he had evaluated her on all three occasions, 

and that Tracy was experiencing a manic episode of bipolar I disorder.  Dr. Muschevici 

described   the   symptoms   that   led   to   his  conclusion,   including   Tracy's   agitation;   her 

conduct of speaking in a rambling and tangential manner and laughing inappropriately; 

her   impaired   judgment;   and   her   paranoid   delusions   about   her   family,   her   former 

employer, and her doctors.        Dr. Muschevici noted that upon this admission, unlike her 

other admissions to API, Tracy agreed that she needed treatment for her bipolar disorder. 

                Dr. Muschevici also testified that he believed Tracy posed a risk of harm 

to herself because she was disconnected from reality and could easily be exploited or 

harmed by others.  He clarified that he did not believe that Tracy was suicidal or that she 

posed a risk to others.        He noted that although Tracy had improved since beginning 

        2       Dr. Muschevici also diagnosed Tracy with attention deficit hyperactivity 

disorder. 

                                                   -3-                                               6555 

----------------------- Page 4-----------------------

treatment upon her admission to API, he believed that she was still gravely disabled. He 

explained that when Tracy was admitted "[s]he was not able at that time to take care of 

herself. She was not able to socialize appropriately to have a normal family life, personal 

life,"   and   that   this   would   inhibit   her   ability   to   survive   safely   in   the   community. 

Dr. Muschevici further testified that Tracy had refused medication during her past two 

admissions at API, that without medication she "cannot function appropriately," and that 

given her acute state there was not a less restrictive treatment alternative than her current 

psychiatric medication. 

                On cross-examination, Tracy's attorney pressed Dr. Muschevici on whether 

Tracy was still exhibiting the psychotic symptoms that Dr. Muschevici had observed on 

the day of the initial evaluation.      Dr. Muschevici agreed that on the day of the hearing 

and the previous day, he had not observed symptoms of paranoid delusion in Tracy and 

that she was improving.  He stressed, however, that he still considered Tracy to be in an 

acute   state   and   that   she   did   not   fully   understand   her   need   for   treatment. Although 

Dr. Muschevici conceded that Tracy could receive psychotherapy and medication outside 

of API, he maintained that outpatient therapy was not a good option "at an acute state." 

Dr. Muschevici further testified that Tracy was cooperating with treatment, socializing, 

sleeping, and eating better since her admission to API, but said that he believed Tracy 

should stay at API because her "acute condition could relapse any time" and without 

medication in "one, two days she could be back [i]n the same psychotic condition." 

                On redirect, Dr. Muschevici clarified that although Tracy's symptoms on 

the day of the hearing were only "hypomanic," he still considered her to be in an "acute 

state" because she had presented manic symptoms only days before.  He testified that he 

believed Tracy was "still . . . in need [of] therapy for acute psychotic manic symptoms" 

and that without medication, he would expect Tracy to return to API with psychotic 

symptoms within a week. 

                                                  -4-                                             6555
 

----------------------- Page 5-----------------------

                Tracy's   husband   also   testified,   recounting   the   same   events   that   he   had 

detailed in his petition to initiate involuntary commitment proceedings.                  He reported, 

among other things, that in the previous week Tracy had left the house in the middle of 

the night, had smashed a sliding glass door when she locked herself out of the house, had 

accused her husband of trying to poison her, and had refused to take medication. 

                Tracy   testified   on   her   own   behalf.   Tracy   admitted   that   she   had   been 

suffering from paranoia when she was admitted to API the previous Friday, but promised 

that she would continue to take medication and see a psychiatrist if she left API.                   But 

Tracy's   testimony   also   demonstrated   that   her   thought   process   was   still   somewhat 

paranoid and disjointed. For instance, Tracy explained that she had been admitted to API 

because her husband "basically needed the house alone for the weekend"; that she had 

smashed the glass door because her husband "or someone else in my best interest had 

hidden all of my keys, drained my gas so many times"; and that API "is a free hotel, an 

excellent place to visit, great food and an amazing amount of geniuses that are inmates 

along with me." 

                In closing, Tracy's attorney argued that Tracy's condition had stabilized 

since her admission and that, based on her symptoms on the day of the hearing, API 

could not show by clear and convincing evidence that Tracy was either gravely disabled 

or likely to cause harm to herself or others. 

                The master issued oral findings and a recommendation based primarily on 

the   testimony   of   Dr.   Muschevici.     The   master   first   made   a   finding   that   Tracy   was 

suffering from mental illness in the form of bipolar I disorder. The master also found that 

although Tracy did not present a risk of harm to herself or others, she was gravely 

disabled,     basing    his  finding    on   Dr.   Muschevici's      testimony     that  despite    some 

improvement, Tracy's condition remained acute and her judgment remained impaired. 

The master also stated that Dr. Muschevici testified that Tracy was "very psychotic, very 

                                                   -5-                                             6555
 

----------------------- Page 6-----------------------

manic"   on   the   day   of   the   hearing. The   master   concluded   that   although   Tracy   had 

improved, she had not stabilized, and that there was no less restrictive treatment because 

"the doctor says that if [Tracy] is discharged in her current acute state that she would be 

re-hospitalized shortly."        The master recommended that the commitment petition be 

granted. 

                When Tracy's attorney questioned whether Dr. Muschevici had testified 

that Tracy was psychotic and manic on the day of the hearing, the master responded that 

he would put his findings in writing so that Tracy could file written objections.                   The 

master's written findings stated: 

                        Dr. Muschevici diagnosed the respondent as suffering 
                bipolar I disorder, most recent episode manic, severe, with 
                psychotic features.      The doctor said he observed consistent 
                symptoms including manic, pressured and agitated speech 
                and    behavior.       He   said   the   respondent     has   problems 
                expressing      herself,   exhibits    mood     swings     and   laughs 
                inappropriately.      He said respondent's psychotic symptoms 
                include paranoid delusions regarding spouse, family and job. 
                He said respondent's thinking is impaired and is rambling, 
                tangential and disassociated. 

                        The respondent is not currently a risk of harm to self 
                or others as there was no evidence of volitional suicidal or 
                assaultive behavior or threats of harm by the respondent since 
                her admission. 

                        There is clear and convincing evidence the respondent 
                is   gravely   disabled   as   [Tracy]   is   currently   in   a   condition 
                where, as a result of her manic and psychotic symptoms and 
                behavior as per the doctor's description, she will continue to 
                suffer    emotional,     mental     and   physical     distress   which 
                significantly impairs her judgment and causes a substantial 
                deterioration       of    her    previous     ability     to   function 
                independently.       The doctor testified that the respondent has 
                improved since her admission and several days of treatment 
                but said that she is not yet stable or has adequate judgment to 

                                                  -6-                                             6555
 

----------------------- Page 7-----------------------

                maintain herself and function safely in a free environment. 
                The doctor said the respondent's condition is still acute and 
                her thinking is impaired. 

                        There is not a less restrictive treatment option until the 
                respondent's condition is improved so her thinking is less 
                impaired and she is able to utilize outpatient mental health 
                services and maintain herself safely.         The doctor said that if 
                [Tracy] is discharged without further treatment she would be 
                rehospitalized   shortly   as   has   been   the   case   with   her   prior 
                admissions in the last month. 

                Tracy   filed   written   objections,   objecting   primarily   to   all   findings   that 

Tracy's "current condition" included "manic and psychotic symptoms" and that Tracy 

would     be  "rehospitalized     shortly"   if   discharged   without   further   treatment.     After 

reviewing Tracy's objections, the superior court signed the proposed findings.                   Tracy 

filed this appeal. 

III.    STANDARD OF REVIEW 

                We review factual findings in involuntary commitment proceedings for 

clear error and will reverse only if a review of the record leaves us with a definite and 
firm conviction that a mistake has been made.3          We "will grant especially great deference 

when the trial court's factual findings require weighing the credibility of witnesses and 
conflicting oral testimony."4      Whether factual findings comport with the requirements of 

the involuntary commitment statute is a legal issue that we review de novo.5  We apply 

our independent judgment to the interpretation of Alaska statutes6 and will interpret 

        3       Wetherhorn v. Alaska Psychiatric Inst., 156 P.3d 371, 375 (Alaska 2007).
 

        4       Bigley v. Alaska Psychiatric Inst., 208 P.3d 168, 178 (Alaska 2009).
 

        5       Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 375.
 

        6       Holderness v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 24 P.3d 1235, 1237 (Alaska
 

                                                  -7-                                               6555 

----------------------- Page 8-----------------------

statutes "according to reason, practicality, and common sense, taking into account the 
plain meaning and purpose of the law as well as the intent of the drafters."7  "We apply 

our independent judgment to issues of mootness because as a matter of judicial policy, 
mootness is a question of law."8 

IV.	    DISCUSSION 

        A.	     Tracy's Appeal Falls Within The Public Interest Exception To The 
                Mootness Doctrine. 

                API urges us to dismiss Tracy's appeal as moot.              API points out that the 

30-day term of Tracy's commitment has long since passed and argues that her appeal 

does   not   fall   under   the   public   interest   exception   to   the   mootness   doctrine. Tracy 

responds that the public interest exception applies because her appeal presents a question 

of   statutory   interpretation   and   that,   in   the   alternative,   we   should   adopt   a   collateral 

consequences exception to mootness for appeals from involuntary commitment orders. 

                We   have   held   that   "[a]   claim   is   moot   if   it   is   no   longer   a   present,   live 

controversy, and the party bringing the action would not be entitled to relief, even if it 
prevails."9   Under this standard Tracy's appeal is moot because the commitment order 

is no longer in effect and a ruling in her favor would not result in her release.  We will, 

however, consider the merits of a claim that would otherwise be moot if the claim falls 

        6(...continued) 

2001). 

        7       Native Village of Elim v. State, 990 P.2d 1, 5 (Alaska 1999). 

        8       Clark v. State, Dep't of Corr., 156 P.3d 384, 386 (Alaska 2007) (internal 

quotation marks omitted). 

        9       Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 380 (quoting Fairbanks Fire Fighters Ass'n, Local 

1324 v. City of Fairbanks, 48 P.3d 1165, 1167 (Alaska 2002)). 

                                                  -8-	                                            6555
 

----------------------- Page 9-----------------------

within the public interest exception to the mootness  doctrine.10              Whether the public 

interest exception applies depends on three factors: "(1) whether the disputed issues are 

capable of repetition, (2) whether the mootness doctrine, if applied, may cause review of 

the issues to be repeatedly circumvented, and (3) whether the issues presented are so 
important to the public interest as to justify overriding the mootness doctrine."11 

                We have recognized that because "an involuntary commitment is a massive 

curtailment of liberty," appeals from involuntary commitment orders raise questions that 
are    important    to  the   public  interest.12    Furthermore,      appeals    from    involuntary 

commitment orders will usually evade review because "[i]t is quite unlikely that an 

appeal from a 30-day or 90-day commitment, or even a 180-day commitment, could be 
completed before the commitment has expired."13 

                Whether an appeal from a commitment order presents questions capable of 

repetition, however, depends on the nature of the issues presented for review.  We held 

in Wetherhorn v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute that where a patient "was committed based 

on a specific set of facts" that were "specific to [her] condition immediately before and 

at the time of her hearing," the question whether those facts were sufficient to justify 
commitment was not capable of repetition.14            A subsequent commitment hearing, or a 

commitment hearing involving a different patient, would involve a wholly different set 

        10      Id. at 380. 

        11      Id. at 380-81. 

        12      E.P.   v.   Alaska   Psychiatric   Inst.,   205   P.3d   1101,   1107   (Alaska   2009) 

(internal quotation marks omitted). 

        13      Id. at 1107. 

        14      Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 381. 

                                                  -9-                                           6555
 

----------------------- Page 10-----------------------

of specific facts.15   In contrast, we held in Bigley v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute that 

questions     "regarding     .  .  .  interpretation   of   the  underlying     statutory   scheme     in 

[commitment and medication] proceedings" did fall under the public interest exception, 
in part because "other patients are likely to raise similar claims in the future."16 

                API argues that Tracy's claim is not capable of repetition because she 

questions     only   whether     there   was   sufficient   evidence     to  justify  her   involuntary 

commitment.       API is correct that Tracy's opening brief argues only that the superior 

court's findings supporting Tracy's commitment were clearly erroneous.                    In her reply 

brief, however, Tracy responds to API's mootness argument by asking us to apply the 

public    interest   exception     because     her  appeal    "presents    a   question    of  statutory 

interpretation that is subject to repetition."         Tracy does not dispute that she displayed 

manic and psychotic symptoms on the date of her admission to API, but she argues that, 

due to her compliance with medication and treatment, by the time of the commitment 

hearing she was no longer gravely disabled.            Tracy argues that her appeal presents the 

question whether the involuntary commitment statute "permits the commitment of a 

patient who is no longer gravely disabled, but whom the psychiatrist wants to keep at the 

hospital   longer   to   return   her   to   baseline."  In   other   words,   Tracy   asks   us   to   decide 

whether AS 47.30.735(c) requires that a patient be gravely disabled at the time of the 

commitment hearing, as opposed to at the time of her admission to a mental health 
facility, in order to justify a 30-day involuntary commitment order.17 

        15      Id.; see also E.P., 205 P.3d at 1107 ("When disputed issues turn on unique 

facts unlikely to be repeated, we have refused to find an exception to mootness."). 

        16      208 P.3d 168, 179 (Alaska 2009); see also E.P., 205 P.3d at 1107 ("The 

matter of statutory interpretation . . . does not depend on E.P.'s particular facts."). 

        17      The     procedures     for  a  30-day    commitment       hearing    are   specified   in 

                                                                                         (continued...) 

                                                  -10-                                               6555 

----------------------- Page 11-----------------------

                We agree with Tracy that this presents a question of statutory interpretation 

that   is   capable   of   repetition. In   order  to   obtain   a   30-day   commitment   order   after 

evaluating a patient, two mental health professionals must file a petition for commitment 

that alleges, among other things, that the patient is "mentally ill and as a result is likely 
to cause harm to self or others or is gravely disabled."18  In order to grant that petition, 

the court must hold a hearing and find by clear and convincing evidence that the patient 

is "mentally ill and as a result is likely to cause harm to [herself] or others or is gravely 
disabled."19   It is possible, however, for a significant period of time to elapse between the 

filing   of   the   petition   and   the   hearing. Alaska   Statute   47.30.715   requires   that   an 

involuntary commitment hearing be held within 72 hours after a patient arrives at the 

mental health facility for evaluation; however, this time period does not count Saturdays, 
Sundays, holidays, or the time it takes to transport the patient,20 and the patient can elect 

        17(...continued) 

AS 47.30.735.   Subsection (c) states: 

                At the conclusion of the hearing the court may commit the 
                respondent to a treatment facility for not more than 30 days 
                if   it  finds,  by   clear  and   convincing      evidence,    that  the 
                respondent is mentally ill and as a result is likely to cause 
                harm to the respondent or others or is gravely disabled. 

        18      AS 47.30.730(a). 

        19      AS 47.30.735(c). 

        20      AS 47.30.805(a)(1). 

                                                  -11-                                             6555
 

----------------------- Page 12-----------------------

to waive the 72-hour time limit.21        If the time limit is waived the hearing must occur 

within seven calendar days of the patient's arrival at the treatment facility.22 

                As a result, the involuntary commitment hearing could take place as much 

as one week after the patient is admitted for evaluation.            If a patient begins treatment 

immediately, it is possible that by the time of the hearing the patient will no longer be 

exhibiting the symptoms that led to her admission.  Therefore, the question whether the 

statute refers to the patient's condition at the time of admission or at the time of the 

hearing is an important question of statutory interpretation that is capable of repetition. 

Because we apply the public interest exception, we need not reach the question whether 

the collateral consequences exception to mootness applies to appeals from involuntary 

commitment orders. 

        B.	     A Patient May Only Be Committed Involuntarily If She Is Gravely 
                Disabled At The Time Of The Commitment Hearing, But In Making 
                That Determination The Court May Consider The Patient's Recent 
                Behavior And Condition As Well As The Patient's Symptoms At The 
                Time Of The Hearing. 

                A petition for a 30-day involuntary commitment may be granted if the trial 

court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that a patient "is mentally ill and as a 
result is likely to cause harm to [herself] or others or is gravely disabled."23               Under 

AS 47.30.915(7): 

                "[G]ravely disabled" means a condition in which a person as 
                a result of mental illness 

        21      AS   47.30.725(f).    In   order   to   waive  the   time   limit   the   patient   must   be 

represented by counsel.  Id. 

        22      Id. 

        23      AS 47.30.735(c) (emphasis added). 

                                                 -12-	                                          6555
 

----------------------- Page 13-----------------------

                 (A) is in danger of physical harm arising from such complete 
                neglect of basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, or personal 
                 safety as to render serious accident, illness, or death highly 
                probable if care by another is not taken; or 

                 (B) will, if not treated, suffer or continue to suffer severe and 
                 abnormal mental, emotional, or physical distress, and this 
                 distress    is   associated     with   significant     impairment      of 
                judgment,       reason,    or   behavior      causing    a   substantial 
                 deterioration   of   the   person's   previous   ability   to   function 
                 independently. 

                 Tracy was committed under the definition provided in AS 47.30.915(7)(B), 

and we have held that AS 47.30.915(7)(B) "must be construed so that the 'distress' that 

justifies commitment refers to a level of incapacity that prevents the person in question 
from being able to live safely outside of a controlled environment."24   Tracy does not 

dispute that she met this definition at the time of her admission to API for evaluation but 

claims that by the time of her commitment hearing she had improved and was no longer 

gravely disabled.   She argues that the superior court erroneously based its commitment 

order on her symptoms at the time of admission rather than on her condition at the time 

of the commitment hearing. 

                 We   agree   with   Tracy   that,   as   a   matter   of   statutory   interpretation,   the 

superior court must find by clear and convincing evidence that a patient is mentally ill 

and gravely disabled or likely to harm herself or others at the time of the commitment 

hearing.     The superior court may not involuntarily commit a patient based only on the 

patient's symptoms at the time of admission to a treatment facility if by the time of the 

hearing the patient is no longer mentally ill and gravely disabled or likely to harm herself 

or others. 

        24       Wetherhorn v. Alaska Psychiatric Inst., 156 P.3d 371, 378 (Alaska 2007). 

                                                   -13-                                               6555 

----------------------- Page 14-----------------------

                 This   interpretation   is   clear   from the   plain   language   of   the   involuntary 

commitment statute.         Alaska Statute 47.30.735, which specifies the procedures for a 

30-day commitment hearing, states: 

                 At the conclusion of the hearing the court may commit the 
                 respondent to a treatment facility for not more than 30 days 
                 if   it  finds,  by   clear   and   convincing      evidence,     that  the 
                 respondent is mentally ill and as a result is likely to cause 
                 harm to the respondent or others or is gravely disabled.[25] 

Other   sections   of   the   involuntary   commitment   statute   support   this   interpretation   by 

indicating that patients should be released as soon as they are no longer gravely disabled 

or likely to harm themselves or others.  Alaska Statute 47.30.720, titled "Release before 

expiration of 72-hour period," provides: 

                 If at any time in the course of the 72-hour [evaluation] period 
                 the   mental   health   professionals   conducting   the   evaluation 
                 determine that the respondent does not meet the standards for 
                 commitment . . . the respondent shall be discharged from the 
                 facility or the place of evaluation by evaluation personnel and 
                 the petitioner and the court so notified. 

Alaska      Statute   47.30.780,     titled   "Early    discharge,"     similarly    provides    that   once 

commitment has begun, "the professional person in charge shall at any time discharge 

a respondent on the ground that the respondent is no longer gravely disabled or likely to 

cause serious harm as a result of mental illness." 

                 The statute thus plainly supports Tracy's contention that a commitment 

order must be based on the patient's condition at the time of the commitment hearing. 

A   patient   who   is   no   longer   gravely   disabled   at   the   time   of   the   hearing   may   not   be 

committed   involuntarily.         This   interpretation  is   also   in   line   with   our   decision   in 

Wetherhorn,   which   emphasized   the   high   standard   required   to   justify   the   massive 

        25       AS 47.30.735(c) (emphasis added). 

                                                    -14-                                                 6555 

----------------------- Page 15-----------------------

curtailment of liberty that involuntary commitment represents: "[I]t is not enough to 

show that care and treatment of an individual's mental illness would be preferred or 
beneficial or even in [the patient's] best interests."26 

                At the same time, nothing in the statutory framework suggests that, when 

deciding whether a patient is gravely disabled, the superior court is limited to considering 

only the symptoms exhibited by the patient on the day of the commitment hearing. Tracy 

emphasizes throughout her argument that on the day of the hearing she was taking her 

medication, sleeping and eating better, and displaying "hypomanic" rather than manic 

or psychotic symptoms.        But it would defy common sense to ignore Tracy's treatment 

history,   which   supplied   context   for   her   symptoms   on   the   day   of   the   hearing. Our 

decision in Wetherhorn suggested that the superior court may also consider any "recent 
acts" when deciding whether a patient is gravely disabled.27   In that case, Wetherhorn 

argued that allowing involuntary commitment for patients who were "gravely disabled" 

was unconstitutional because the definition of "gravely disabled" did not require that the 
patient be in imminent danger.28   We responded: 

                We have not yet addressed the question whether the concept 
                of imminence is compatible with the passive nature of harm 
                reflected in the "gravely disabled" definition or whether the 
                "facts and specific behavior of the respondent" required by 
                AS 47.30.730(a)(7) must include recent acts.            But we need 
                not address those issues here, because the facts alleged in this 
                case were drawn from the recent past.  The petition stated 
                that Wetherhorn had shown a manic state, a lack of insight, 
                and non-compliance with her medication for the past three 

        26      Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 378 (quoting In re Labelle, 728 P.2d 138, 146 

(Wash. 1986)). 

        27      Id. at 379. 

        28      Id. at 378. 

                                                 -15-                                            6555
 

----------------------- Page 16-----------------------

                months.      And   during   the   hearing,   Dr.   Kiele   testified   that 
                Wetherhorn   remained   confused   and   agitated   and   that   her 
                difficulties with insight had not changed since she had been 
                at the hospital. . . .    Because all these examples of specific 
                behavior      were    drawn    from   the   recent    past,  they   were 
                sufficient to meet the evidentiary standards established by 
                those states that have addressed the question of imminence.[29] 

Although we did not decide whether evidence of recent behavior is required for a finding 

that a patient is gravely disabled, we did recognize that recent acts are appropriate for the 

superior court to consider.   We therefore conclude that although the superior court may 

only   grant   an   involuntary   commitment   petition   if   it   finds   by   clear   and   convincing 

evidence that the patient is mentally ill and likely to harm herself or others or is gravely 

disabled at the time of the commitment hearing, when making that determination the 

court may consider the patient's recent behavior and condition as well as the patient's 

symptoms on the day of the hearing. 

        C.	     The Superior Court Applied The Statute Correctly In Determining 
                That Tracy Was Gravely Disabled On The Day Of The Commitment 
                Hearing. 

                We now turn to the question whether the superior court complied with the 

requirements   of   the   involuntary   commitment   statute   in   this   case.    "Whether   factual 

findings comport with the requirements of [the involuntary commitment statute] presents 
a legal issue, which we review de novo."30 

        29      Id. at 379 (emphasis added) (internal footnotes omitted); see also In re 

Labelle, 728 P.2d at 145-46 (interpreting a similar statute to allow a finding that a patient 
was   gravely   disabled   even   if   the   patient   had   improved   slightly   by   the   time   of   the 
commitment hearing so long as there was "recent proof of significant loss of cognitive 
or volitional control" and inpatient care was essential to the patient's health or safety). 

        30       Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 375. 

                                                  -16-	                                            6555
 

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                Tracy argues that the superior court granted the commitment petition so that 

API could continue her treatment and return her to her "baseline," even though she was 

no longer gravely disabled.   We disagree.  The master's written findings, adopted by the 

superior court, expressly concluded that Tracy was gravely disabled on the day of the 

commitment hearing.  In his written findings, the master summarized Dr. Muschevici's 

observations of Tracy's recent behavior, including her manic and psychotic symptoms 

at the time of her admission, and determined that Tracy was "currently in a condition 

where . . . she will continue to suffer emotional, mental and physical distress which 

significantly impairs her judgment and causes a substantial deterioration of her previous 
ability to function independently."31 (Emphasis added.) The master's findings recognized 

that Tracy had improved somewhat since her admission but specifically determined that 

Tracy was "not yet stable," that she did not have "adequate judgment to maintain herself 

and function safely in a free environment," and that her "condition [was] still acute and 

her thinking [was] impaired."  The findings also explained that Tracy could not properly 

access outpatient treatment while her thinking was so impaired, and that without further 
treatment she would likely be hospitalized again.32 

        31      Tracy argues that this finding is clearly erroneous because the master's oral 

findings   mistakenly   stated   that   Dr.   Muschevici   testified   that   Tracy   was   manic   and 
psychotic on the date of the hearing.  The question whether specific facts are sufficient 
to   justify   involuntary   commitment   is   not   capable   of   repetition   and   therefore   moot. 
Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 381.           We note in passing, however, that the master's written 
findings did not contain this mistaken assertion and that when oral and written findings 
are inconsistent, the written decision normally prevails.  See Ogden v. Ogden, 39 P.3d 
513, 518 (Alaska 2001). 

        32      Tracy also argues that the evidence only showed that she was likely to be 

hospitalized again if she stopped taking her medication.               This argument is also moot, 
Wetherhorn, 156 P.3d at 381, but we note that the probate master heard testimony from 
both Dr. Muschevici and Tracy's husband that Tracy had repeatedly stopped taking her 
                                                                                         (continued...) 

                                                  -17-                                               6555 

----------------------- Page 18-----------------------

              In   summary,     the  superior  court   properly   applied   the  involuntary 

commitment statute when it granted the petition based on Tracy's condition at the time 

of the hearing and considered Tracy's recent symptoms and behavior in making that 

determination. 

V.     CONCLUSION 

              We conclude that although Tracy's claims are moot, the public interest 

exception to the mootness doctrine applies because Tracy presents a question of statutory 

interpretation that is capable of repetition.  A finding that a patient is mentally ill and 

likely to harm herself or others or is gravely disabled must be based on the patient's 

condition at the time of the commitment hearing.      But in making that finding, the trial 

court can consider the patient's recent behavior and symptoms, as well as the symptoms 

exhibited at the time of the commitment hearing. In this case, the superior court properly 

applied the involuntary commitment statute.     For these reasons, the order of the superior 

court granting the petition for involuntary commitment is AFFIRMED. 

       32(...continued) 

medication in the past.   The probate master also heard Tracy's own testimony and had 
the opportunity to judge her credibility. 

                                            -18-                                        6555 
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