Lansing State Journal
Jan. 14, 2020

Sarah Lehr

LANSING – The death of psychiatric patient at Sparrow Hospital has kicked off a legal fight between outside investigators and the city of Lansing.

Advocates filed a lawsuit Monday, alleging Lansing violated federal laws when the city failed to release police records.

The city’s inaction frustrated attempts by Michigan Protection Advocacy Service, Inc. to investigate whether abuse or neglect caused the death of a patient with mental illness, according to the lawsuit filed by MPAS in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Michigan’s governor has designated MPAS, a nonprofit, to investigate abuse and neglect allegations as mandated by a federal law called the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act.

MPAS investigators have waited more than 10 weeks for documents from the Lansing Police Department, the lawsuit says.

The group sought the records as part of an investigation into 90 deaths at private psychiatric hospitals in Michigan over a three-year period, MPAS Director of Advocacy Andrea Rizor said.

The police department had opened its own investigation into the death of a patient who had been admitted to Sparrow in Lansing with diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and mixed personality traits.

A report submitted by Sparrow to Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs in December 2018 listed the patient’s cause of death as unknown, according to MPAS. A Sparrow spokesman declined to comment for this article, citing the pending litigation.

MPAS requested documents from Lansing by citing PAIMI and other federal laws that give advocacy groups the authority to investigate abuse or neglect at facilities that serve the mentally ill.

Lansing officials, however, “insisted” on treating MPAS’ demand for documents as a records request under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA ensures that members of the public can access government documents, although the law includes exemptions. For instance, public agencies in Michigan may withhold or redact records if officials cite specific reasons, such as preserving privacy or protecting an active law enforcement investigation.

“Despite assertions that Lansing Police Department was working on the request, neither the City of Lansing nor the Lansing Police Department has produced any of the records,” the lawsuit says, adding that Lansing officials “made clear that they will only provide redacted versions of the records MPAS requested, pursuant to FOIA and Lansing Police Department practices.”

MPAS first asked Lansing to provide the documents in October 2019, the plaintiffs say.

The city’s inaction also violates federal laws called the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and the Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights Program of the Rehabilitation Act, MPAS argues.

As of Tuesday, the city had not been served with the lawsuit, Chief Deputy City Attorney F. Joseph Abood said. Lansing officials did not provide further comment.

MPAS sued the city of Detroit in 2009 after officials there failed to release police reports from a patient death investigation in a timely manner. MPAS agreed to dismiss the lawsuit later that year once Detroit provided the records.

Contact reporter Sarah Lehr at (517) 377-1056 or slehr@lsj.comFollow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.

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