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J.J. v. County of San Diego

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

February 14, 2014

J.J., a Minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO, Defendant and Respondent.

APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of San Diego County, Ct. No. 37-2012-00098644-CU-PT-CTL William R. Nevitt, Jr., Judge.

Elaine L. Heine for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Thomas E. Montgomery, County Counsel, and David G. Axtmann, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent.

BENKE, Acting P. J.

Plaintiff and appellant J.J., appearing through her guardian ad litem, Ja.J., appeals from an order denying her petition brought under Government Code[1] section 946.6 (petition) for relief from the requirement in section 945.4 that she timely file a written claim against the County of San Diego (County) before she can maintain an action against the County for money or damages.

J.J. contends the court erred in denying her petition because her cause of action against the County accrued in March 2012, after her legal counsel obtained a San Diego Police Department "Investigator's Follow-up Report" dated January 14, 2011 (January 2011 report). J.J. contends this report for the first time showed the County's negligence was the cause of her personal injury after her foster father, R.L., sexually molested her while she was living in foster care in the family home of R.L. between July 17, 2009 and September 18, 2009. Because she filed her claim with the County in May 2012, J.J. contends it was timely presented. J.J. alternatively contends that the County is estopped from asserting the alleged untimeliness of her claim and that her alleged late filing of the claim was the result of excusable neglect.

The County contends that J.J.'s personal injury cause of action accrued when she was molested by R.L. in 2009 because she knew then it was wrong or, at the latest, in early March 2011 when J.J.'s parents (after reunification) attended and spoke at R.L.'s sentencing. J.J. in December 2010 had disclosed the molestation to her parents and County social workers, which led to a police investigation and ultimately to R.L. pleading guilty to one count of committing a lewd and lascivious act on a minor under the age of 14, in violation of Penal Code section 288, subdivision (a). Because J.J. neither filed her claim within six months from the accrual of her cause of action nor filed her petition to seek relief from her late claim within one year from the accrual of her cause of action, the County contends the court properly denied the petition. The County also contends neither estoppel nor excusable neglect apply in this case.

As we explain, because J.J.'s cause of action accrued at the latest in March 2011 and because J.J. did not submit a claim to the County until May 2012—more than a year later—we are constrained to conclude the court properly denied her petition, inasmuch as we also conclude her claim was not timely as a result of the principles of estoppel or excusable neglect. Affirmed.


A. Guiding Principles

"The Government Claims Act (§ 810 et seq.) 'establishes certain conditions precedent to the filing of a lawsuit against a public entity. As relevant here, a plaintiff must timely file a claim for money or damages with the public entity. (§ 911.2.) The failure to do so bars the plaintiff from bringing suit against that entity. (§ 945.4.)' (State of California v. Superior Court (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1234, 1237.) '[T]he claims presentation requirement applies to all forms of monetary demands, regardless of the theory of the action....' [Citation.] '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.' (Ibid.)

"Claims for personal injury must be presented not later than six months after the accrual of the cause of action.... (§ 911.2, subd. (a).) Timely claim presentation is not merely a procedural requirement, but is a condition precedent to the claimant's ability to maintain an action against the public entity. (Shirk v. Vista Unified School Dist. (2007) 42 Cal.4th 201, 209.) 'Only after the public entity's board has acted upon or is deemed to have rejected the claim may the injured person bring a lawsuit alleging a cause of action in tort against the public entity.' (Ibid.)

"The failure to timely present a claim to the public entity bars the claimant from filing a lawsuit against that public entity. (City of San Jose v. Superior Court (1974) 12 Cal.3d 447, 454.) Moreover, because the purpose of the claims is not 'to prevent surprise [but rather] is to provide the public entity sufficient information to enable it to adequately investigate claims and to settle them, if appropriate, without the expense of litigation... [citations][, ]... [i]t is well-settled that claims statutes must be satisfied even in face of the public entity's actual knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the claim. Such knowledge—standing alone—constitutes neither substantial compliance nor basis for estoppel.' (Id. at p. 455.)" (California Restaurant Management Systems v. City of San Diego (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1581, 1591-1592.)

Accordingly, a claim for personal injuries—such as in the instant case—must be filed with the public entity (i.e., County) no later than six months after the accrual of the cause of action. (§ 911.2, subd. (a).) However, "if the injured party fails to file a timely claim, a written application may be made to the public entity for leave to present such claim. (Gov. Code, § 911.4, subd. (a).) If the public entity denies the application, Government Code section 946.6 authorizes the injured party to petition the court for relief from the claim requirements." (Munoz v. State of California (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 1767, 1777 (Munoz), fn. omitted.)

Subdivision (a) of section 946.6 states in relevant part that "[i]f an application for leave to present a claim is denied or deemed to be denied pursuant to Section 911.6, a petition may be made to the court for an order relieving the petitioner from Section 945.4 [i.e., necessity of written claim]. The proper court for filing the petition is a superior court that would be a proper court for the trial of an action on the cause of action to which the claim relates. If the petition is filed in a court which is not a proper court for the determination of the matter, the court, on motion of any party, shall transfer the proceeding to a proper court." Subdivision (b)(1) of section 946.6 requires the petitioner show among other things that the "application was made to the board under Section 911.4 and was denied or deemed denied." Under subdivision (c) of section 946.6, a court "shall relieve the petitioner from Section 945.4 if the court finds that the application to the board under Section 911.4 was made within a reasonable time not to exceed that specified in subdivision (b) of Section 911.4, " among other requirements.

Subdivision (a) of section 911.4 provides that when a claim required by section 911.2 is not presented within six months after the accrual of the cause of action, a party may make a "written application" to the public entity for leave to present that claim. Subdivision (b) of section 911.4 provides that such application shall be presented to the public entity "within a reasonable time not to exceed one year after the accrual of the cause of action...." (Italics added.) Subdivision (c)(1) of that statute provides that in computing the one-year period, the "time during which the person who sustained the alleged injury, damage, or loss as a minor shall be counted, but the time during which he or she is mentally incapacitated and does not have a guardian or conservator of his or her person shall not be counted." (Italics added; see also John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 438, 444, fn. 3 (John R.) [noting that while a statute of limitations generally "does not run during the time a potential plaintiff is a minor, and such a party accordingly has up to a year after attaining the age of majority to bring suit on a cause of action for personal injury, " "[t]his respite does not apply to a claim against a public entity, " as expressly stated in § 911.4, subd. (b)].)

"The determination of the trial court in granting or denying a petition for relief under Government Code section 946.6 will not be disturbed on appeal except for an abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is shown where uncontradicted evidence or affidavits of the plaintiff establish adequate cause for relief. (Ebersol v. Cowan (1983) 35 Cal.3d 427, 435.)

"Government Code section 946.6 is a remedial statute intended to provide relief from technical rules which otherwise provide a trap for the unwary. The remedial policy underlying the statute is that wherever possible cases should be heard on their merits. Thus, a denial of such relief by the trial court is examined more rigorously than where relief is granted and any doubts which may exist should be resolved in favor of the application. (Bettencourt v. Los Rios Community College Dist. [(1986)] 42 Cal.3d [270, ] 275-276; Drummond v. County of Fresno [(1987)] 193 Cal.App.3d [1406, ] 1410-1411.)

"Relief from the six-month limit is granted under the same showing as is required for relief under Code of Civil Procedure section 473. (Viles v. State of California (1967) 66 Cal.2d 24, 29 [construing predecessor statutes].) It is the well-recognized policy of the law to liberally construe remedial statutes designed to protect persons within their purview, and the modern trend of judicial decisions favors ...

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