URBANA — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the estate of Yingying Zhang against two clinical counselors at the University of Illinois Counseling Center.
The family of the slain visiting Chinese scholar had argued that counselors should have done more when Brendt Christensen, who was later convicted of murdering Ms. Zhang, told them three months before her death about his fascination with serial killers and that he’d purchased and returned items to move and dispose of a body.
But U.S. Judge Colin S. Bruce ruled that Ms. Zhang’s death “was simply too remote a consequence of Defendants’ alleged actions to hold them responsible under the federal civil rights law.”
Nothing in the lawsuit “alleges that either Defendant directly encouraged Christensen or otherwise told him that he could act on his violent impulses with immunity,” Bruce wrote. “It is complete speculation that Defendants’ initiation of the treatment plan, and failure to successfully see it through to completion, created or increased a danger to Zhang, as the court has no way of knowing what would have happened had Christensen never been treated.”
In his 36-page decision, Bruce sided with the UI counselors’ lawyers, who argued in their motion to dismiss that the social workers “cannot be held legally responsible for the random and incomprehensible actions of a lone individual committed more than two months after the Social Workers saw Christensen a single time each.”
The lawsuit was filed last June, just before Christensen’s criminal trial was set to begin.
After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty of the June 2017 kidnapping and killing of Ms. Zhang and sentenced to life in prison.
While a UI graduate student, he had visited the counseling center on March 21, 2017, after previously being treated for depression and sleep issues at the McKinley Health Center.
He told an intern at the counseling center that he “had thoughts of committing a murder,” according to the intern’s notes, which went on to say: “He explained that he had taken steps to put a plan in place by purchasing some items but had returned them.”
The intern requested that Christensen get a “consult” with someone else, and Christensen returned to the counseling center nine days later.
On March 30, 2017, he met with Jennifer Maupin and Tom Miebach, the counselors named in the lawsuit who both testified during his trial.
Christensen talked about murder in an analytical fashion as a fantasy of his, Miebach said, but when asked if he might act on those fantasies, Christensen said he wouldn’t.
When asked specifically if he had a particular target in mind, Christensen said he didn’t, Miebach testified.
Christensen was scheduled for another appointment with Miebach in early April and also was referred to Rosecrance, a substance-abuse facility in Champaign that has psychiatrists available.
Christensen didn’t want residential treatment or group therapy, Maupin testified. He specifically rejected Alcoholics Anonymous because of its references to higher powers, Maupin said.
He apparently never went to Rosecrance but may have showed up for his next appointment at the counseling center.
On April 6, 2017, Christensen filled out an intake form but never met with Miebach, who wasn’t sure why.
The lawsuit put the UI in the position of both providing care and comfort to Ms. Zhang’s family while opposing them in court.
"The University of Illinois is gratified by the Court’s ruling granting the motion to dismiss, and we hope the ruling concludes the lawsuit," UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Tuesday. "We stand by our social workers, their professionalism, and their commitment to the health and safety of our students. Though we respectfully disagree with the filing of this litigation, we continue to grieve with Ms. Zhang’s family and loved ones over her death."
The federal lawsuit was filed by Chicago-based attorney James Pullos on behalf of Daniel Deneen, the administrator of Ms. Zhang’s estate.
When contacted Monday, Pullos said: “I do not have any comment at this time.”
The lawsuit also accused Maupin and Miebach of violating state laws against negligence and Christensen of violating state laws against battery.
In dismissing the federal counts, Bruce declined to take on the state charges, allowing Ms. Zhang’s family the option of refiling in state court.
Despite intense search efforts, investigators have not been able to find Ms. Zhang’s body.
Christensen reported to a high-security federal prison in Kentucky earlier this month.