Ford v. Norton

107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 776
Brief Filed: 1/00
Court: Court of Appeals of California
Year of Decision: 2001

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 136KB)


Whether, under California law, a clinical psychologist is authorized to order the early release of a patient who is hospitalized voluntarily (i.e., the scope of psychologists' practice)

Index Topic

Psychologists' Scope of Practice


A tort action was brought by a mentally ill man who was involuntarily committed to an inpatient hospital for 72 hours on the grounds that he was dangerous. Twelve hours later, a psychologist on staff evaluated Norton (the plaintiff/appellant) and, after discussions with a psychiatrist who did not evaluate him, released him. The plaintiff/appellant wounded his roommate shortly thereafter and then sued the psychologist and psychiatrist. The trial court accepted the psychologist's defense that he was immunized from liability by a Section 5154 of the involuntary commitment statute that immunized discharge decisions of "psychiatrists" in involuntary commitment situations. Then, citing California Association of Psychology Providers v. Rank, 793 P.2d 2 (1990), the court concluded that the term "psychiatrist" in the immunity statute includes psychologists. (CAPP v. Rank struck down state regulations that were adopted to implement a statute granting psychologists hospital privileges on the grounds they imposed greater restrictions on psychologists' scope of practice than the statute. The CAPP v. Rank court, in construing a different statute found that "a hospital that admits clinical psychologists to its staff may permit such psychologists to take primary responsibility for the admission, diagnosis, treatment and discharge {emphasis added} of their patients.") The plaintiff (now appellant) argued that a footnote in CAPP v. Rank meant that the statute should not be interpreted to include psychologists. (APA participated in CAPP v. Rank as an amicus.)

APA's Position

In its amicus curiae brief, APA argued that the trial court correctly concluded, in light of CAPP v. Rank, that Dr. Norton was entitled to immunity under Section 5154. Although Section 5154 explicitly immunizes only the "psychiatrist" responsible for the 72-hour treatment, "psychiatrist" must be read as being interchangeable with "psychologist." Section 5154 was enacted at a time when only psychiatrists, and not psychologists, could admit and discharge patients in acute mental health facilities. As the Court noted in Rank, the legislature later adopted Health and Safety Code Section 1316.5 to put psychologists and psychiatrists "on an equal footing." APA argued that the involuntary commitment statute could not be read to grant discharge authority and immunity to psychiatrists alone, without relegating psychologists to the inferior, dependent status that the Rank court recognized as changed by the legislature.


The Court of Appeal of California held that, due to the timing of amendments to the California Code, Section 5154 of the statute should be construed narrowly to apply only to "directly responsible psychiatrists." Consequently, the trial court's dismissal of the underlying complaint was reversed.