The Reason A Petitioner Submits To Justify Granting Relief From The Government Code’s Claim Presentation Requirement Must Be The Same As The Reason Advanced In The Underlying Application To The Agency

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Mar 27, 2020

During high school football team tryouts, a minor student collapsed due to extreme exhaustion and dehydration after the coach denied him water. The student suffered permanent injuries as a result. The student’s mother filed a lawsuit on behalf of her son three months later for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation against the District, its superintendent, the school principal, and the football coach.

The California Government Code requires an individual suing a public agency based on a personal injury to first submit a written claim to the agency no more than six months after the injury—a process called the claim presentation requirement. If the individual misses this six-month window, she must submit a written application to the agency asking for leave to present the new claim. The agency must allow leave when the failure to present the claim was through mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect and the agency was not prejudiced in its defense of the claim.

Here, seven months after the injury occurred, the mother asked the District to allow her to file her own claims against the District because her son’s injuries negatively affected her ability to work. The District did not act on the mother’s application, so it was deemed denied after 45 days.

The mother then petitioned the trial court for relief from the claim presentation requirement based on “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” Her petition stated she missed the six-month window because she was originally unaware of the nature and extent of her son’s injuries until after the window closed. The District opposed the mother’s petition and argued the mother had not established excusable neglect.

The court issued a tentative ruling denying the mother’s petition on the grounds she failed to demonstrate excusable neglect. The court found the mother was aware that her son’s injuries caused her financial problems of some significance shortly after they occurred and she had been thinking of these problems.

However, the parties participated in an oral argument and additional briefing. Contrary to the mother’s original argument, the mother’s attorney submitted a declaration that stated the reason the mother failed to file her claims on time was his own mistake, neglect, inadvertence, or excusable neglect. The trial court found the mother met her burden of proof to demonstrate her neglect was excusable and granted the mother’s petition. The District appealed.

The Court of Appeal found that although the mother had the right to present additional evidence at the oral argument, state law did not allow her to present additional reasons for the excusable neglect. In other words, the reason the mother offered to the trial court regarding her excusable neglect and to the agency must be the same. The Court of Appeal also held that the agency must have the opportunity to consider the mother’s reasons for filing a late claim, so the reasons cannot change in the mother’s appeal to the trial court. Here, the mother presented additional evidence about a new reason for her excusable neglect, and she only did this after the trial court issued the tentative decision ruling against the her.

Accordingly, the trial court abused its discretion to eliminate the statutory claims presentation requirement. The Court of Appeal ordered the trial court to vacate its order on behalf of the mother and deny her requested relief.

Lincoln Unified Sch. Dist. v. Superior Court of San Joaquin Cty. (2020) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2020 WL 1024682].