01/24/2016 - US: Family Mediation News | Judge sends San Jose autistic boy's parents, neighbors back to court for mediation

Voicing her disappointment in a case causing dismay among Bay Area parents, a Santa Clara County judge on Tuesday chastised the parents of a boy with autism and their neighbors suing them over claims the boy's aggressiveness made him a public nuisance, imploring them to end the ugliness and help their children learn a life lesson.

"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 to be the opposite of that, and be litigation-oriented?"

In the end, both sides agreed to court-supervised mediation to settle the lawsuit filed by Kumaran Santhanam and Bindu Pothen and Robert and Marci Flowers against Vidyut Gopal and Parul Agrawal.

After the hearing, Gopal said he was pleased with the judge's suggestion but noted that mediation had been tried previously and 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," he 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."

In their lawsuit filed last summer, the Flowerses, Pothen and Santhanamand said that despite repeated appeals by residents on Arlington Court, the parents of the boy with autism had not been able to control his menacing 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 plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages for the harm they say the situation caused their families and want a plan to protect their children. Though Gopal and Agrawal have since moved, they own the home and could return. However, they told this newspaper that they do not intend to return to Arlington Court. The Flowerses´╗┐, 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 all to consider another alternative to resolve their dispute.

She called the Silicon Valley parents "incredibly intelligent people" whose combined brain power, creativity 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 agreed to meet next month with Judge Brian C. Walsh, who is serving as a pro-tem judge for the Sixth District Court of Appeal. Marci Flowers attended the hearing by phone.

The couples have insisted that the lawsuit is not about autism but about public safety.

But Gopal and Agrawal say their autistic son, with rare exceptions, 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 they enrolled their son in special therapeutic classes and he was 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 also 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." The plaintiffs claim it was the parents' inaction over their son's behavior that allowed him to become a public nuisance.

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," claimed Escher.

She and other parents said they feared that if the suit was successful, families with autistic children 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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