SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - Santa Cruz County, Calif., and several of its agencies must face wrongful death and other claims after a woman's parents were killed by her schizophrenic brother sometime after he was released from its jail, a federal judge ruled.
Marlene Henderson and the estates of her parents, Joseph and Edyth Henderson, sued Santa Cruz County, its sheriff's department and county health services agency following the murder of Joseph and Edyth by their son, James.
James, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, had made threats to kill his parents before doing a stint in the Santa Cruz County Jail's mental health unit.
The parents had asked to be notified when their son was going to be released from jail over fears that he would make good on his threats. They also requested that James be placed in a mental health program following his release.
But the county released James a month earlier than expected, and his family was never notified. And on June 30, 2013, several months after he got out of jail, James returned to his parents' home and killed them.
Henderson's suit against the county alleges wrongful death, negligent hiring, training and supervision, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and a federal constitutional due process claim.
After removing the case to federal court, the county moved to have the entire case thrown out this past October. But U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte dismissed only the deliberate indifference claim against the county, since Henderson was unable to point to a policy or practice that had been violated.
Whyte rejected a second bid to dismiss the case on Jan. 16, finding that Henderson had adequately pled that the county placed the parents in danger by not notifying them they had released James from jail into homelessness.
"Although the county argues that the Hendersons knew of James' violent threats, and knew he would be released eventually, the Hendersons did not know James would be released into unsupervised homelessness and may have taken additional steps to protect themselves," Whyte wrote in a 12-page ruling. "Based on the actions of the county - assuring the Hendersons that they would be notified of James's release - the Hendersons believed they faced a much different risk and did not prepare themselves for the risk they actually faced."
Whyte acknowledged that Henderson hasn't yet pointed to any specific policies at the Santa Cruz County Jail that would support her federal due process claim that the county acted with deliberate indifference by releasing James. But the judge also said that concrete evidence isn't necessary at this stage of the proceedings.
And while state law provides the county immunity from Henderson's failure to protect theory, it does not provide protection from her allegations that Santa Cruz failed to warn the parents of James' release - if in fact they didn't know he'd been discharged, the judge said.
Although statements in Henderson's complaint indicate that she knew James had been released, her failure to warn claim hinges on what her parents knew, the judge added.
"County argues that it is undisputed that the Hendersons knew James was released. The statement, however, does not conclusively establish that Edyth and Joseph, the decedents, knew that James was released into unsupervised homelessness. At the hearing on the motion to dismiss, plaintiffs' counsel represented that only Marlene, and not the parents, knew James was released. Accordingly, the failure to warn could be a cause of the Hendersons' injuries," Whyte wrote, denying the request to dismiss the state-law claims.
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