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Sparks v. Kern County Board of Supervisors

April 29, 2009; as modified May 13, 2009


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Kern County. Arthur E. Wallace, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. S-1500-CV258218).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Levy, Acting P.J.



Appellant, Carl Sparks, served as the elected sheriff of respondent, County of Kern (County), from 1991 through 2002. In October 2004, the County filed an action against Sparks alleging that Sparks falsely certified sheriff's department payrolls resulting in certain employees receiving unauthorized premium pay adjustments. In November 2004, and again in April 2005, Sparks requested the County to provide him with a defense. The County denied these requests and Sparks provided his own defense. At trial, the court granted SparksÂ’s motions for a directed verdict and a nonsuit, and judgment was entered in his favor.*fn1

Sparks filed the underlying petition for writ of mandate against respondent, Kern County Board of Supervisors (Board), seeking reimbursement of the attorney fees and costs incurred by him in defending the County's action under Government Code*fn2 section 996.4. The trial court denied the petition on the ground that Sparks had not presented a claim to the County before filing the petition as required by the Government Claims Act. (§ 810 et seq.)

On appeal, Sparks argues that the claims filing requirements do not apply to a writ petition brought to enforce a public employee's right to a defense under § 995. Sparks further contends that, if the claims filing requirements do apply, he substantially complied when he requested the County to provide him with a defense.

As discussed below, Sparks was required to present a claim to the County before filing his petition. Moreover, the letters sent by Sparks requesting a defense did not substantially comply with this prerequisite. Accordingly, the judgment will be affirmed.


1. Sparks was Required to Present a Claim to the County before filing the Petition

With certain exceptions, upon request, a public entity must provide for the defense of any civil action or proceeding brought against an employee or former employee on account of that employee's act or omission in the scope of employment. (§ 995.) If after request, a public entity refuses to provide a defense and the employee retains counsel, that employee is "entitled" to recover reasonable attorney fees and costs if the action or proceeding arose out of an act or omission in the scope employment unless the public entity establishes the existence of one of the specified exceptions. (§ 996.4.) The issue here is whether the Government Claims Act applies to a petition filed to recover such defense costs pursuant to section 996.4.

Under the Government Claims Act, "no suit for 'money or damages' may be brought against a public entity until a written claim has been presented to the entity and the claim either has been acted upon or is deemed to have been rejected. (§§ 905, 945.4.)" (Canova v. Trustees of Imperial Irrigation Dist. Employee Pension Plan (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 1487, 1493.) Such a suit includes all actions where the plaintiff is seeking monetary relief. (Hart v. County of Alameda (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 766, 778.) Accordingly, the claims presentation requirement applies to all forms of monetary demands, regardless of the theory of the action. (Id. at pp. 778-779.) This includes a mandamus action seeking monetary reimbursement. (Madera Community Hospital v. County of Madera (1984) 155 Cal.App.3d 136, 148-149.) The failure to timely present a claim for money or damages to a public entity bars the plaintiff from bringing suit against that entity. (City of Stockton v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 730, 738.)

The policy underlying the claims presentation requirements is to afford prompt notice to public entities. This permits early investigation and evaluation of the claim and informed fiscal planning in light of prospective liabilities. (Escamilla v. Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (2006) 141 Cal.App.4th 498, 513.) The purpose is not to prevent surprise. (City of Stockton v. Superior Court, supra, 42 Cal.4th at p. 738.) Rather, claims statutes must be satisfied even in the face of the public entity's actual knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the claim. (Ibid.)

Sparks argues that his writ petition is exempt from the claims statutes because he is not seeking "money damages."*fn3 Rather, Sparks contends, he is seeking to compel the Board to perform a duty enjoined by law, i.e., to reimburse him for the cost of his defense. Sparks relies on authority holding that a party need not comply with the Government Claims Act when bringing an action either for (1) injunctive or declaratory relief where monetary relief is merely incidental to the primary relief sought (see generally Lozada v. City and County of San Francisco (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 1139, 1164-1165); or (2) for the return of specific property (see generally Escamilla v. Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, supra, 141 Cal.App.4th at pp. 506-509).

First, Sparks is not seeking the return of specific property. Sparks identifies no specific property held by respondents that he is entitled to recover. The exemption Sparks relies on has not been applied outside the bailee context, i.e., specific property seized by the government and wrongfully retained. (City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 422, 429.) The rationale behind exempting actions for specific recovery property from the Government Claims Act is that a claim for specific property effectively held by the ...

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