Jesse Martin, a Tulare resident, lost his case against the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) on May 20, due to a technicality.
TPCD Board Chair Xavier Avila and board member Charlie Ramos represent the district in court.
Avila, the district, and the district’s former cemetery manager Leonor Castaneda were named in the suit.
Martin’s case was dismissed due to the fact that the statute of limitations for filing against a government agency is six months. Court closures due to COVID were not a factor; Martin, admittedly, did not start the paperwork until this year.
After conferring with two lawyers, both of whom declined to take the case because of the cost, Martin took their advice and filed in small claims court. Both attorneys erroneously told Martin that the statute of limitations was one year.
The case centered on the alleged egregious behavior of Castaneda and alleged dereliction of duty of Avila regarding the burial of Jesse Martin’s daughter Jessica Martin.
Jessica Martin was buried March 27, 2020 at the Tulare Cemetery; and Martin filed the suit 11 months later.
Martin was upset about his lawyers’ faulty advice but still upbeat after the hearing.
“I had a chance to vent a little,” he said.
Unintelligible COVID policy
Martin told the judge that it wasn’t fair the cemetery district didn’t have to follow the rules but the people who pay the district’s bills do.
Martin was referring to the fact that Castaneda took it upon herself to write the district’s COVID policy at the beginning of the pandemic without getting approval from the board of trustees.
The policy, besides being incomprehensible, also contradicted the governor’s COVID mandate allowing up to 10 people to attend outdoor funeral services.
Martin’s suit requested reimbursement of the $3,530.25 for his daughter’s burial fees as a result of the pain and suffering caused by Castaneda and Avila. He stated in the suit that the services were rushed and his family has not been able to complete their grieving process.
“Instead (we) have had to deal with depression and anger brought on by those people who failed to do their job,” he claimed.
According to Martin, Castaneda told him that family members could not be pallbearers and they had to watch the service from their cars. She later allegedly threatened the Martin family, saying she would order the groundskeepers to lock them out of the cemetery during the service if they complained.
Martin said Avila did nothing when he alerted the board chair to Castaneda’s behavior.
On the day of Jessica’s burial, the family was forced to watch from their cars in horror as the cemetery staff and priest bobbled her casket while struggling to carry it from the hearse to the gravesite.
During the same time period, according to photographs of other services, other families were allowed 50 to 100 people standing shoulder to shoulder in the cemetery during burials.
Subsequently, the district was accused of treating grieving families preferentially based on their prominence — or lack thereof — in the community.
Martin wrote in a letter to the district in May of 2020 that his daughter’s death at only 30 years old was so unexpected and “knowing how certain families have received preferential treatment at Tulare Cemetery and the way he was treated has only extended the family’s grief.”
At the June regular meeting former TPCD Chair Steve Presant gave a public apology to the Martin Family over the handling of their daughter’s services on March 27. Presant said he had “displayed insensitivity to their grief.”
“We are dedicated to look at the decisions that we made that could have been done differently. We are committed to adding additional grief and bereavement training for our employees,” said Presant.
Still, Castaneda never apologized to the Martin family and the district never disciplined her for her behavior — Avila continued to praise her work performance, and the district gave her raises and increased benefits after the incident.
Presant went as far as to declare her TPCD’s CEO after the district gave her a promotion.
Back in the Courtroom
According to Martin, the judge expressed how sorry he was over the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s burial, but the case had to be dismissed due to government code. The judge added that not every government entity falls under the six month statute of limitations, but cemetery districts do.
Outside the courtroom before the hearing, Avila handed Martin a letter from TPCD’s lawyers informing him of the six month time limit.
Avila apologized for not getting the letter to him earlier but claimed the district did not have Martin’s address.
At least some representatives of the district did have Martin’s address, though: former Trustee Vicki Gilson personally went to Martin’s house in April of 2020 to express her condolences and apologize for the district’s behavior.
“I was angry,” said Martin. “And the smirk on Xavier’s face while the judge confirmed the six month statute of limitations didn’t help.”
“But I did what I set out to do, Leonor was forced to resign,” said Martin.