California Supreme Court says Minors' Claims against Public Agencies Must Adhere to Government Claims Act Timelines

Lozano Smith Client News Brief
April 2017
Number 14

In J.M. v. Huntington Beach Union High School District (Mar. 6, 2017, No. S230510) ___ Cal.5th ___ 2017 [Cal. LEXIS 1609] < opinions/documents/S230510.PDF >, the California Supreme Court determined a high school football player was not entitled to court relief for his personal injury claim against a school district because he failed to strictly comply with the timelines spelled out in the California Government Claims Act (Act), often referred to as the Tort Claims Act.

This holding illustrates the consequences of failing to strictly comply with the procedural requirements for bringing claims against government entities. As the Court held, no additional recourse is available to a minor who does not petition for superior court relief within the six-month timeframe set by the Act.

J.M., a minor who attended the Huntington Beach Union High School District, received concussion injuries while playing in a high school football game. J.M. did not file a government claim against the District within the six month statute of limitations period on his tort claim. After almost a year had passed since the date of his injury, J.M. retained counsel who submitted an application with the District to file a late claim. The District did not take action on the late claim application, and the claim was denied by operation of law 45 days after it was presented.

After nearly one year had passed, J.M.'s attorney petitioned the superior court for relief from the Act's claim filing requirements. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal rejected the claim, holding that J.M. did not file his petition for court relief within six months from the date the claim was deemed denied by the District, as required by the Act. In affirming the decision, the California Supreme Court also disapproved a contrary appellate court ruling in E.M. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 736.

The Act, as set forth in Government Code sections 810 et seq., generally requires that claims for money or damages against a public entity must be presented in writing to the public entity prior to filing a lawsuit in court. A tort claim must be filed with the public entity within six months of the accrual of the claim. However, the Act permits a minor to submit an application for permission to file a late claim up to one year after expiration of the claims period. If a public entity does not take affirmative action to respond to the late claim within 45 days, the application is denied by operation of law, and the applicant may seek relief by filing a petition in court within six months.

In J.M., the plaintiff claimed that he was not obligated to comply with the Act's requirement that he petition the court within six months from the date the District was deemed to have denied his late claim application, arguing that the Act required the District to grant late applications if the applicant was a minor during the entire claims period, and that he was therefore entitled to relief. The Court rejected this argument, finding that it was J.M.'s responsibility to timely seek relief in court from the District's denial of his late claim application, even if the District was required to grant it.

In finding that J.M.'s claim was time barred, the Court reversed a contrary holding in E.M., under which J.M. would have been entitled to relief. The minor in that case did not file a petition for relief in court until more than six months had passed since her late claim application was rejected. The appellate court in E.M. found the plaintiff's untimely petition for relief was irrelevant because plaintiff had satisfied the technical requirements of the Act when she made a timely application to file a late claim with the entity. The Supreme Court in J.M. rejected this holding, finding that strict adherence to the Act's timelines for filing a petition for relief was required, and no additional recourse was available to a plaintiff who failed to petition the court within six months of a denial of a late claim application.

The Court also dismissed J.M.'s claim that he was entitled to relief based upon the District's failure to provide him with written notice of its deemed denial of his late claim application. The Court found that while the Act required written notice of a claim that is deemed denied by an entity's inaction, the Legislature did not include the same notice requirement for an agency's failure to act upon a late claim application.

For more information on the Supreme Court's decision or on application of the Government Claims Act in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our nine offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.
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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.