Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, July 5, 2018


Page 3


Ninth Circuit:

California Survivorship Law Applies to Civil Rights Claims

Man Who Was Adopted as Child Held to Lack Standing to Bring Action Based on Shooting Death of His Biological Mother


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Tuesday that the California survivorship statute defeats a man’s civil rights claims based on police fatally shooting his biological mother because he was adopted as an infant.

Deborah Colbert was killed by Santa Clara police officers in 2014 after she threatened them with a baseball bat while they were responding to her 911 call. She was known by police to suffer from mental health problems.

Her biological son, Leland Wheeler, sued the city for violating both Colbert’s civil rights and his own, as well as under the Fourteenth Amendment, and for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”).

Judge Gary S. Katzman of the U.S. Court of International Trade, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion. It affirms the dismissal of all of Wheeler’s claims by District Court Judge Ronald M. Whyte of the Northern District of California.

Central to Katzman’s opinion was the fact that Wheeler had been put up for adoption by Colbert when he was an infant.

Two Statutes

Two of Wheeler’s claims were that the police department had denied him and Colbert of a civil right under color of law, giving rise to a cause of action under 42 USC §1983. Another statute, 42 U.S.C. §1988, provides that any gaps in federal civil rights laws, under particular titles, are governed by state law when it is not inconsistent with federal law.

California survivorship laws bar adopted children from bringing suit on behalf of their deceased parents. Wheeler argued that because the state laws would prohibit him from bringing his claims, it was at odds with the federal law.

Katzman disagreed. The fact that plaintiff’s claims under federal law would be abated by virtue of applying state law does not point to an inconsistency, he said, commenting:

 “We note that we have previously applied state survivorship law to §1983 actions where the decedent’s death was caused by the alleged constitutional violation and allowed such claims to abate.”

Exhaustive List

As for his claims under the ADA and RA, Wheeler also argued that §1988 could not apply to those causes of action because they are not contained in the titles mentioned in that section. On that point Katzman agreed, declaring that federal common law would apply.

“That being said,” he continued, “Wheeler cannot bring his asserted ADA and RA claims on behalf of Colbert. He has provided no authority supporting the proposition that an individual without a legal relationship to the decedent—such as an adopted-out biological child—could bring survival claims under a uniform federal law.”

Limited Holding

Similarly, Katzman dismissed Wheeler’s Fourteenth Amendment claim, noting that without a strong, actual mother-son relationship between Wheeler and Colbert, which he had not shown, their relationship did not rise to the level of those protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ninth U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote a concurring opinion addressing such relationships. She wrote:

“We do not hold that no adopted-out child could prove he had a protected interest in his relationship with his biological parent under the Fourteenth Amendment….There is no reason why an adopted-out child could not have had a ‘deeply loving and interdependent relationship’ with both his adoptive and his biological mother under other circumstances.”

The case is Wheeler v. City of Santa Clara, 16-17375.


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