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D.C., A Minor, Etc v. Oakdale Joint Unified School District et al

March 1, 2012

D.C., A MINOR, ETC., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
OAKDALE JOINT UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



(Super. Ct. No. CIV660360) APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Stanislaus County. William A. Mayhew, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Franson, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

INTRODUCTION

In California, a public entity is not liable for damages unless a statute provides for it. (Gov. Code, § 815, subd. (a).)*fn1 Public entity tort liability is statutory. (Peterson v. San Francisco Community College Dist. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 799, 809.) Under the California Government Claims Act (§ 810 et seq.), with some exceptions, a suit for damages may not be brought against a public entity unless a written claim has been presented to the public entity and has been totally or partially denied by that entity's governing board, or has been deemed rejected by the board due to the board's failure to act upon it within a specified time. (§ 945.4.) A claim must be presented within a statutory deadline, usually within six months of accrual of a cause of action. (§ 911.2, subd. (a).) If the six-month deadline is not met, an application to the public entity for leave to present a late claim may be made. (§ 915, subd. (a).) That application must be presented to the public entity within a reasonable time not to exceed one year after the accrual of the cause of action, and shall state the reason for the delay in presenting the claim. (§ 911.4, subd. (b).) The board shall grant or deny the application for leave within 45 days after it is presented to the board, or within such further time as the parties may agree in writing before the expiration of the 45-day period. (§ 911.6, subd. (a).) If the board fails or refuses to act on the application for leave to present a late claim, the application is deemed denied on the 45th day or the last day specified in the written extension agreement of the parties. (§ 911.6, subd. (c).)

The matter presently before us involves the next step in the tort claim process after a board has denied an application for leave to present a late claim. Section 911.8, a statute at issue in this case, states that "[w]ritten notice of the board's action upon the application [for leave] shall be given [to the appropriate party] ...." (§ 911.8, subd. (a).) The statute further provides that "[i]f the application is denied, the notice shall include a warning" advising the applicant that "[i]f you wish to file a court action on this matter, you must first petition the appropriate court for an order relieving you from the provisions of Government Code Section 945.4 (claims presentation requirement)" and that "[s]uch petition must be filed with the court within six (6) months from the date your application for leave to present a late claim was denied." (§ 911.8, subd. (b).)

This six-month limitation is codified in section 946.6, subdivision (b)(3), which states in pertinent part: "The petition [for an order relieving the petitioner from the section 945.4 claims presentation requirement] shall be filed within six months after the application to the board is denied or deemed to be denied pursuant to Section 911.6."

In this case, appellant D.C. presented his application for leave to present a late claim to respondent Oakdale Joint Unified School District (the School District) on or about April 28, 2010.*fn2 On June 9, 43 days from April 28, the School District sent appellant's counsel a rejection notice stating "[t]he application for leave to present a late claim that you filed with the Oakdale Joint Unified School District on behalf of [D.C.] ... was denied by the Board of Trustees." On December 3, less than six months after June 9, appellant filed a section 946.6 petition in superior court for an order relieving him of the claims filing requirements. The School District's opposition to the petition argued that appellant's petition was untimely. The opposition included a declaration from the superintendent of the School District stating that appellant's application for leave to present a late claim had been denied by the School District's Board of Trustees at their regular meeting on May 10. The superior court agreed with the School District that because December 3, was more than six months after the Board of Trustees' May 10, rejection of appellant's application, appellant's superior court petition for relief from the section 945.4 claims filing requirements was untimely. The court therefore denied the petition.*fn3

In this case we hold that in order to constitute "[w]ritten notice of the board's action upon the application" as described in section 911.8, subdivision (a) the document purporting to be "written notice of the board's action" must include the date on which the board's action was taken. As we shall explain, that is what we conclude the Legislature meant by its use of the word "notice." We also hold that, under the circumstances of this case, appellant should be permitted to plead and attempt to prove that respondents are estopped from asserting the section 946.6, subdivision (b), six-month limitation as a defense to his petition for relief from the claims filing requirements.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The claims appellant has attempted to present to the School District and the Office of Education pertain to those entities' alleged mishandling of his behavioral difficulties when he was a six-year-old student in the School District in 2009. As we have already mentioned, appellant presented an application for leave to present late claims to these two entities on or about April 28.

On June 9, the School District sent appellant's counsel a letter, which stated in its entirety (minus its address, salutation and closing):

"The application for leave to present a late claim that you filed with the Oakdale Joint Unified School District on behalf of [D.C.] ... was denied by the Board of Trustees.

"WARNING: If you wish to file a court action on this matter, you must first petition the appropriate court for an order relieving you from the provisions of Government Code section 945.4, claims presentation requirement. See Government Code section 946.6. Such petition must be filed with the court within six (6) ...


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