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Former Employee’s Failure To Timely File A Claim For Damages With A Fire Protection District Prevented Lawsuit
On March 9, 2018, Katherine Wood resigned from her position as an administrative secretary with the Pioneer Fire Protection District (District). Under the Government Claims Act (Act), no lawsuit for damages may be maintained against a public entity unless a written claim has first been presented to the entity. Any claim for personal injury must be presented no later than six months after the “accrual of the cause of action.” Wood presented a claim to the County of El Dorado (County) on the last day to present a claim. Her claim alleged that she was constructively discharged, harassed, and retaliated against for reporting improper use of District funds. The County rejected Wood’s claim because the District is a separate public agency over which the County has no control.
Wood then presented her claim to the District, which the District returned as untimely because it was not presented within six months of her alleged constructive discharge. Wood submitted an application to the District for leave to present a late claim based on mistake, inadvertence, surprise, and excusable neglect because her legal counsel was not aware that the District required claim forms to be submitted directly to the District rather than to the County. The District denied Wood’s application.
Wood filed a petition for relief from the claim presentation requirement with the superior court on the same grounds of mistake and excusable neglect. Wood alleged that her counsel reviewed Wood’s personnel file, which included County personnel forms, and confirmed that District personnel were paid by the County. Wood further alleged that the District’s website does not provide information about submitting a claim and that her counsel had previously submitted other claims to small fire districts within the County directly to the County’s Board of Supervisors, which were then processed through the County. The superior court denied the petition.
Wood appealed. She alleged that the superior court abused its discretion by ignoring her “uncontradicted evidence” of mistake and excusable neglect. The California Court of Appeal disagreed, noting that the District submitted evidence that contradicted Wood’s version of events, and that demonstrated a lack of diligence by Wood’s counsel. For example, the Court stated that Wood’s counsel obtained her personnel file from the District itself and that, while County checks are used to pay District employees, all employee compensation and benefits come from the District alone. The Court of Appeal noted that Wood’s counsel should have done more to discern the relationship between the District and the County. Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeal concluded that a reasonably prudent person would have submitted a timely claim to the District and affirmed the superior court’s denial of Wood’s petition.
Wood v. Pioneer Fire Protection District, 2021 WL 4962699 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2021).
A person may seek relief for failing to present a timely claim for damages to a public agency in limited circumstances, such as excusable mistake. This case demonstrates that courts are very exacting on those who do not carefully follow the claims’ filing requirements. Agencies can avoid lawsuits based on untimely or improperly filed claims for damages.