In A.S. v. Palmdale School District (2023) appeal no. B31801, the Court of Appeals recently confirmed that damages are a necessary element of a Government Tort Claim.
Plaintiff A.S., a minor, alleged that a teacher at his elementary school grabbed and twisted his arm, resulting in an injury requiring medical treatment. Plaintiff's mother filed a government claim form with the Palmdale School District describing the incident and suggesting a district-level investigation and disciplinary action against the teacher. However, the parent did not mention damages or compensation. The lower court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend for failing to comply with the Government Claims Act and the appellate court affirmed the decision.
The appellate court confirmed that the Government Claims Act requires any person seeking monetary damages from a public entity to file a claim with that entity. (Gov. Code § 905.) The claim must include the information specified in Government Code section 910. One element of compliance is to include an amount of damages if less than $10,000, or if in excess of $10,000 whether the claim would be a limited civil case. (Gov. Code § 910(f).)
A complaint is deficient and subject to a general demurrer if it fails to allege facts showing compliance with the claims requirement. The District successfully showed that Plaintiff's mother failed to include a request for damages in the claim form, thus not complying or substantially complying with the claims requirement.
The appellate court cited to authority confirming that some compliance with all of the statutory requirements, as well as sufficient information to enable the public entity to adequately investigate the merits in an effort to settle, is required for a claim to meet the substantial compliance test. However, the court pointed out that the doctrine of substantial compliance cannot cure the total omission of an essential element from the claim. The court held that a failure to estimate the amount of damages on the claim document cannot be remedied by the substantial compliance doctrine.
On the complaint form provided by the District to the Plaintiff's mother, there were two prompts: one is to describe the incident or complaint, the other is for a suggestion to resolve the problem. In response regarding to a suggestion to resolve the problem, Plaintiff's mother wrote: “I suggest that a thorough district level, unbiased and professional investigation be conducted regarding, not only, this incident but the entire school culture, especially the leadership at the site. I suggest that Mr. Parisio receive appropriate discipline for physically attacking a student. I truly believe that Mr. Parisio is a danger to [A.S.] as well as the population of students in general.”
The lower court found that all indications from the form was that Plaintiff was seeking discipline against the teacher for the incident, not damages. As such, the complaint form did not substantially comply with Government Code section 910.
The appellate court also cited authority which confirmed that “A claim that fails to substantially comply with sections 910 and 910.2 may still be considered a ‘claim as presented' if it puts the public entity on notice both that the claimant is attempting to file a valid claim and that litigation will result if the matter is not resolved.” Here, the appellate court found that because there was no indication that Plaintiff was seeking compensation for his injury and nothing in the form threatened litigation if the (non-monetary) demands were not met, the form was not a “claim as presented” requiring the District to notify the Plaintiff of noncompliance. As such, the affirmative defense for noncompliance was not waived by the District.
Nor did Equitable Estoppel apply to Plaintiff as the appellate court determined that at the time of the filing of the original complaint, Plaintiff was represented by counsel (who is charged with knowledge of the law in California), Plaintiff's counsel had seen the claim form filled out by Plaintiff (as it was attached to the Complaint), and Plaintiff and his counsel had time to file leave to file a late claim to correct any mistakes on the form.
For more information on Government Claims Act notices, please contact our office. Parker & Covert LLP has offices located in southern and northern California. We invite you to visit our website at www.ParkerCovert.com.
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