Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Disability Rights New Jersey (DRNJ) yesterday brought suit against the New Jersey Department of Human Services and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services on behalf of thousands of New Jersey psychiatric patients. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Trenton, alleges that these agencies allow patients to be forcibly medicated in complete disregard of their rights to consent to treatment and without meaningful review of their need for medication.
In this lawsuit, DRNJ and Kirkland & Ellis LLP are asking a judge in U.S. District Court to require that any patient who does not want to receive medication be given an attorney and a court hearing where the hospital has the burden of proving that the medication is necessary and where strict controls over the amount and duration of the proposed medication are clearly imposed.
"Honoring patients' rights and dignity by giving them a greater voice in medication decisions will result in better treatment and can save the State money on unwanted and unnecessary medication," said Michael Reisman, a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis.
In New Jersey today—and in stark contrast with states as different as New York and Alaska—patients in psychiatric hospitals are routinely drugged with massive doses of mind-altering psychotropic drugs, sometimes administered by painful intramuscular injection, without any meaningful medical oversight and without adequate due process of law. This, despite the fact that each person has a fundamental legal right to refuse medical treatment and to make decisions regarding his or her individual health care.
DRNJ Director of Litigation Emmett Dwyer explains that, "We've tried for years to make New Jersey officials understand the concerns of their patients, but state officials continue to disregard the idea that patients should have rights and should have an active role in their own recovery. Pointing out to state officials that the practice of forcibly medicating patients is outlawed in neighboring states has fallen on deaf ears."
Although psychotropic drugs can help patients, they can also have powerful negative effects on a person's ability to think and feel and on his or her sense of self. They can also cause unpredictable, disabling and sometimes incurable disorders—among them memory loss and neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. One in four patients receiving long-term treatment with antipsychotic drugs contracts tardive dyskinesia, a disease characterized by involuntary writhing movements of the facial muscles, tongue, trunk and limbs.
The lawsuit does not seek to forbid doctors at state mental hospitals from administering medication, even by injection, in emergency situations, but seeks to change the procedures by which powerful psychotropic drugs are administered to objecting patients on a long-term basis.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice recently concluded that medication practices in New Jersey's largest state psychiatric hospitals substantially deviate from generally accepted professional standards elsewhere in the nation. As a result of these dangerous practices—including polypharmacy, the administration of massive doses of multiple powerful psychotropic medications to the same patient—the health and lives of psychiatric patients in New Jersey are even today being put at risk.
New Jersey has not only not moved forward but has actually moved backwards. Unbelievably, the state today affords fewer rights to psychiatric patients than it did three decades ago. Yet over this same period of time, the federal government and most other states—ranging from Connecticut to Texas—have greatly expanded patients' rights. Indeed, more than two-thirds of Americans today live in states that provide hearings to people who refuse psychotropic medication.
Shockingly, the State of New Jersey treats its prison inmates better than it does patients in its psychiatric hospitals. State prison inmates are given the right to challenge the unwanted administration of psychotropic medication in a hearing before an independent and impartial decision maker, with the prison bearing the burden of proving that such medication is necessary. These fundamental protections, which provide basic guarantees of due process for all individuals, are completely absent in New Jersey's psychiatric hospitals.
The harrowing experiences of DRNJ's clients provide examples of the appalling treatment afforded psychiatric patients in New Jersey. Take, for example, "P.D.," who was trained as a scientific glassblower and is a patient at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, widely regarded as the most notorious of the state's mental institutions and cited numerous times in the Department of Justice report for its unsound practices. While at Ancora, P.D. was given an array of psychotropic drugs that subsequently caused him to experience painful side effects. P.D. likened the experience of forced injections of the powerful drug Haldol to torture. The various medications administered to P.D. without his consent resulted in such severe restlessness that the skin on his legs was badly worn from constantly pacing the halls of the hospital ward. Nor did the hospital ever explain to P.D. that he even had a right to refuse medication. As a further result of these forced medications, P.D. has been prevented from doing many of the things he most enjoyed on a daily basis: Things as simple and as ordinary to most of us as reading, sketching and writing.
Attorneys involved in this case include Michael D. Reisman, Robert Cohen, Shiva Farouki and Alex Kolod of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Tel. (212) 446-4800, and Emmett Dwyer of Disability Rights New Jersey (DRNJ), Tel. (609) 292-9742.