October 10, 2023

Judge Rules in Favor of WA Counties Represented by Pacifica in Lawsuit with Significant Implications for State Mental Health System

Published August 25, 2023; updated October 10, 2023.

In a victory for a coalition of Washington counties represented by Pacifica Law Group, a Pierce County Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction on Friday, October 6, against the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The ruling orders DSHS to comply with its statutory obligations to “civil conversion patients,” people who have had criminal charges dismissed because county superior courts deem them mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Under state law, these patients become the responsibility of DSHS, which is required to evaluate them for potential civil commitment and treatment, and to fulfill other obligations, including informing law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims, and other interested parties before it releases certain patients back into their communities.

The decision by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Schwartz came in response to a lawsuit filed on August 24 against DSHS by Pacifica Law Group senior litigation partner Paul Lawrence and a group of Washington county prosecutors. The suit, which included a coalition of 22 Washington counties and the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) as plaintiffs, alleged that DSHS failed their statutory obligations by refusing to evaluate civil conversion patients and releasing others without warning, “depriving a particularly at-risk population of the opportunity for mental health treatment to the detriment of both patient well-being and community safety.”

Finding in favor of Pacifica’s clients, Judge Schwartz ordered DSHS to evaluate all new civil conversion patients for civil commitment, and to inform local authorities in advance when it plans to release existing patients back into their communities.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement that the ruling “affirms the state’s basic obligation to evaluate the behavioral health needs of people in the legal system who cannot be tried because they lack the ability to aid in their own defense and to give them an opportunity for meaningful treatment.”

Paul Lawrence leads a Pacifica litigation team working on the case that includes partner Ian Rogers and associate Shweta Jayawardhan.

Six additional Washington counties have also indicated that they will join the lawsuit, which carries significant implications for the state’s criminal and mental health care systems, and the communities they support.

Click here for a PDF of the complaint.