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By: Owen T. Rooney
In J.M. v. Huntington Beach Union High School District, 2017 Lexis 2017, the California Supreme Court ruled that a minor plaintiff was required to comply with the time requirements for petitioning a court for relief under the Government Claims Act after a late claim was denied when the public entity failed to act upon the application.
On October 31, 2011 plaintiff J.M. suffered a concussion during a high school football game. Plaintiff did not file a claim with the District within the six months as required by Government Code section 911.2(a). Almost a year after his claim accrued, he presented the District with a late claim application which was timely pursuant to section 911.4. The District did not take any action on the claim. Under Government Code section 911.6, if the public entity does not take any action on a late claim application, it is deemed denied on the 45th day after it was presented. Therefore, by operation of law, the late claim application was deemed denied on December 8, 2012.
On October 28, 2013 plaintiff’s counsel petitioned the Superior Court for relief to present a Tort Claim. Under Government Code section 946.6 (b) a petition for relief from the claims requirement must be filed within six months after a late claim application is denied or it is deemed denied by operation of law. The petition for relief thus should have been filed no later than June 9, 2013. The trial court denied the petition for relief. The Court of Appeal affirmed.
The Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that under section 911.6 (b)(2) the District was required to grant his late claim application and that this section superseded the “deemed to have been denied” language of section 911.6(c). The Supreme Court was able to reconcile these two provisions. In doing so, the Supreme Court did not suggest that a public entity should routinely ignore late claim applications and instead rely on the “deemed denied” language as a default position. A public entity may fail to refuse to act for a number of reasons including there may be uncertainty as to when the claim accrued or the applicant’s status as a minor, the public entity may not have been able to complete its investigation or the public entity may have simply failed to act on the claim due to inadvertence.
The six-month limitations period in section 946.6 is mandatory. The Supreme Court held it was plaintiff’s responsibility to petition the court for relief when the District failed to respond to his claim notwithstanding that they were required to grant it.
This decision provides clarity to the statutory construction of Government Code section 946.6. In short, despite the requirement that the minor’s late claim application be granted, a denial due to the public entity’s inaction nonetheless starts the forty-five day clock.
Three of the Justices suggested that the Legislature address the “anomaly” created by the fact that a public entity does not have an obligation to provide the claimant with written notice that the application has been denied or that the six months to petition the Superior Court has started to run when the public entity denied an application.
It will be interesting to see if the Legislature, in fact, addresses this issue.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Owen T. Rooney at [email protected].