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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Questions County’s Fault in Couple’s Murder

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - A woman whose schizophrenic brother killed their parents after being released from the Santa Cruz County jail hit a roadblock with wrongful death and constitutional claims, after a federal judge ruled late last week that she had not pointed to any specific wrongdoing by the county.

Marlene Henderson and the estates of her parents Joseph and Edyth Henderson sued Santa Cruz County, its sheriff's department and the Santa Cruz 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.

Joseph and Edyth had requested 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 James was released 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.

The man had never been placed in a mental health program as his parents had requested.

Santa Cruz County and the other county defendants lobbied for dismissal of all of Henderson's claims, including wrongful death, infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and failure to warn, and a constitutional claim based on the right to familial relationships. The county defendants deny they had directly infringed any constitutional or statutory rights, and argued that it was Henderson's brother who had caused the harm.

U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte found that Henderson's argument of deliberate indifference to the threat James posed to his parents while in custody and after his release had not been adequately pled, since she didn't point to a specific policy or custom the county had violated.

"Furthermore, allegations of random acts, or single instances of misconduct, are insufficient to establish a municipal custom," Whyte continued. "Plaintiffs cannot state a Monell claim based on a policy of deliberate indifference to the threat of a single person. Accordingly, the court dismisses this claim for failure to state a cause of action, with 20 days leave to amend."

As to whether Whyte had supplemental jurisdiction over Henderson's state claims, the judge noted that the case had begun in state court but had been moved at the county's request due to the now-dismissed federal claim.

"Here, plaintiffs originally filed in state court, no substantial proceedings have taken place, and the case involves the interaction of numerous state statutes," Whyte wrote. "Therefore, if plaintiffs do not elect to amend, or do not successfully amend to allege a federal claim, the court, in its discretion, will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction and will remand the case to the state court."

Henderson has until Nov. 17 to fix her complaint.

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