Neighbors Headed To Mediation In Autism Public Nuisance Suit
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Voicing her dismay in a case causing an uproar among parents, a Santa Clara County judge this week strongly encouraged the parents of a boy with autism and their neighbors who claim the boy is a public nuisance and filed suit to enter a court-supervised mediation.
“The question I have for each and every one of you is: Do you want to be solution-oriented and a great role model for your kids?” Superior Court Judge Maureen A. Folan asked the parents standing before a packed courtroom. “Or do you want the opposite of that, and be litigation-oriented?”
In the end, both sides agreed to avert a trial and try to settle the lawsuit filed by Kumaran Santhanam and Bindu Pothen and Robert and Marci Flowers against Vidyut Gopal and Parul Agrawal.
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After the hearing, Gopal said he was pleased with the judge’s suggestion, noting that prior private mediation had been tried, but failed.
Robert Flowers called the judge’s idea “promising.”
“We have been absolutely in favor of a solution since long before the suit ever happened,” Flowers said.
Santhanam said he was happy the judge “has given us the opportunity that we had been seeking since the beginning” while his wife added: “We are looking forward to arriving at a permanent safety solution for all our children — that has always been our primary goal.”
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified financial damages for the harm they say the situation caused them, and want a plan in place that would protect the neighborhood’s children. Though Gopal and Agrawal have since moved, they own the home and could always return. However, they told the San Jose Mercury News that they do not intend to return to live on Arlington Court. The Flowers, who were renting the Sunnyvale home, also have moved.
The civil court hearing had originally been scheduled to determine if the Sunnyvale neighbors could obtain the 11-year-old boy’s therapy and school records. But Folan put that issue aside and admonished them to consider another alternative to resolve their dispute.
She called the Silicon Valley parents “incredibly intelligent people” whose combined brain power and love for their children created an opportunity to “take time out of all this ugliness” and offer “life lessons we want to teach our kids.”
Both sides told Folan they would meet next month with Judge Brian C. Walsh, who is serving as a pro-tem judge for the 6th District Court of Appeal. Marci Flowers attended the hearing by phone.
In their lawsuit filed last summer, Santhanam and Pothen and the Flowers said that despite repeated appeals by residents on Arlington Court, the parents of the boy with autism had not been able to control his aggressive behavior toward others.
The couples said that Gopal and Agrawal’s son would slap or kick their children, and in at least one instance bit an adult who lived across the street from the boy.
The two couples said Gopal and Agrawal did not supervise their son well enough over the years, and that after mounting frustration and an attempt to create a neighborhood safety plan in the spring of 2014 fell apart, they were forced to sue.
The couples have insisted that the lawsuit is not about autism, but about public safety.
But Gopal and Agrawal say their son who has autism, with rare exception, was under their care or a baby sitter’s at all times, and that the incidents were not as serious as alleged. Moreover, they say, after their son was enrolled in special therapeutic classes and given special medication, his bad behavior stopped.
Still, a different Santa Clara County judge last July agreed to impose a preliminary injunction against the boy and his parents to ensure the boy did not strike, assault or batter anyone in the neighborhood or their personal property.
The lawsuit also alleges the boy’s disruptive behavior created an “as-yet unquantified chilling effect on the otherwise ‘hot’ local real estate market” and that “people feel constrained in the marketability of their homes as this issue remains unresolved and the nuisance remains unabated.”
Jill Escher, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Autism Society, whose members have been outraged over the lawsuit’s aim of labeling the boy a public nuisance and their claim that his behavior would reduce property values, was relieved by the judge’s advice to the parents and their decision to accept it.
“The judge was trying to send a message that neighbors need to find a way to work things out without aggressive, expensive lawsuits like this one,” said Escher.
She and other parents said they feared that if the suit were successful, families with children with autism could be run out of neighborhoods everywhere, based solely on a “public nuisance” claim. “I think the judge totally saw through the oppressive, litigious nature of this suit. No injuries were alleged — it was grotesquely out of proportion.”
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