Message from Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area Regarding Sunnyvale “Public Nuisance” Lawsuit
Dear autism community,
Recent news reports from the San Francisco Bay Area have drawn attention to a controversial lawsuit. In the suit, former neighbors of a local autism family are attempting to designate a boy with autism a “public nuisance,” while also attempting to collect unspecified damages for alleged loss of property value.
We considered these claims preposterous, an affront to public policy, and otherwise lacking in merit, and thought the case would swiftly settle or be dismissed. But after mediation failed, in order to prove this boy a “public nuisance” that must be “abated,” the plaintiff neighbors issued subpoenas requesting private records about the boy’s behaviors in school, therapy, and camp, information from his private files at the regional center for the developmentally disabled, and even confidential information from a parent support group.
Last week, with a court hearing on those extensive requests looming on the calendar, we felt it prudent to alert our local autism community about this case. With more than 80,000 individuals with more severe forms of autism in our state, 12,000 of them in our Bay Area, any precedent of an individual with autism being deemed a “public nuisance” and facing such dramatic privacy intrusions filled us with dread.
After we posted an open letter on our blog, news about the suit quickly went viral, sending shockwaves through the national autism community. We suppose this should not have surprised us, as autism families are already too familiar with ostracism and marginalization. and already weighed down with immeasurable worry and care. If public nuisance suits could proliferate, people understood these actions could raise the further specter of bankruptcy and a life of seclusion dominated by fear of court sanctions.
Some emphasized the other side of the coin, protesting that this boy allegedly engaged in repeated aggressive outbursts and minor acts of trespass, and that neighbors should be protected from any further harm he might cause. We fully agree that as difficult as autism can be at times, this disorder should not serve as a free pass to justify injury to other individuals or property, even if the autism behaviors are nonvolitional and impulsive, and associated with compromised cognitive abilities. The public obviously deserves protection from harm, no matter the source.
But the point of our letter was that a “public nuisance” lawsuit is simply no way to address community conflicts about autism or any other disability. For that, our society already offers processes and programs, including but not limited to therapeutic interventions, police intervention, child protective services, mental health services, civil commitments, developmental disability programs and supports, and even mediation and small claims courts to provide relief for minor torts such as those alleged. Our society is hardly without protections from those with intellectual disability who exhibit impulsive behaviors. Adding public nuisance doctrine to the mix will not solve problems and will only harm some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Further, the present public nuisance claim is rendered all the more inappropriate and absurd when you realize the autism family moved away more than a year ago, that no incidents are alleged to have occurred for more than a year and a half, and that one of the plaintiff couples has also moved from the neighborhood.
Let’s hope this case results in a nationwide “aha” moment that, given the stupendous growth in autism cases and concurrent federal policy that firmly supports integration and prohibits discrimination, we cannot allow our legal system to develop precedent that strips people with autism of their dignity and right to be part of our communities. Autism families and programs should not have to live in fear of bullying, bankruptcy, and banishment. For this to be successful on a national level, however, we will need recognition of the tremendous scope of the autism epidemic and wholesale reform of our outrageously outdated and underfunded autism lifespan support system.
We join the defendants in this case to thank the autism community for its outpouring of support.
Very truly yours,
The Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area Board of Directors