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J.M. v. Huntington Beach Union High School District

Supreme Court of California

March 6, 2017

J.M., a Minor, etc., Plaintiff and Appellant,
HUNTINGTON BEACH UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant and Respondent. -00684104

         Ct.App. 4/3 G049773

         Superior Court of Orange County, No. 30-2013-00684104 Kirk H. Nakamura Judge

          Gusdorff Law, Janet R. Gusdorff; Russell & Lazarus and Christopher E. Russell for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          McCune & Harber, Stephen M. Harber and Dominic A. Quiller for Defendant and Respondent.

          Thompson & Colegate, Susan Knock Beck; Gordon & Rees and Don Willenburg for Association of Southern California Defense Counsel and the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California and Nevada as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Respondent.

          Corrigan, J.

         Here we conclude that plaintiff J.M.'s suit is barred because he failed to comply with the requirements of the Government Claims Act.[1] In a belated claim presented to defendant Huntington Beach Union High School District (the District), J.M. alleged he was injured in a school football game. Although a trainer advised the coach that J.M. might have suffered a concussion, he was allowed to participate in full contact practice several days later. He was subsequently diagnosed with double concussion syndrome. On the facts alleged, J.M.'s personal injury action accrued on October 31, 2011, the date of his diagnosis.

         J.M. did not file a claim within six months, as required by section 911.2, subdivision (a). He retained counsel after that period elapsed, and counsel presented the District with an application to file a late claim on October 24, 2012, nearly a year after the claim accrued. The application was timely under section 911.4.[2] The District took no action. Section 911.6, subdivision (c) (section 911.6(c)) provides that if a public entity does not act on a late claim application, it is deemed denied on the 45th day after it was presented. Thus, by operation of law, J.M.'s application was deemed denied on December 8, 2012. On October 28, 2013, counsel petitioned the superior court for relief from the obligation to present a claim before bringing suit. Under section 946.6, subdivision (b) (section 946.6(b)), such a petition must be filed within six months after a late claim application is either denied or deemed denied. The trial court rejected J.M.'s petition, noting that it should have been filed by June 9, 2013. The Court of Appeal affirmed. It disagreed with E.M. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 736, under which J.M.'s suit would have been allowed to proceed.

         We affirm the Court of Appeal's judgment, and disapprove E.M. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist., supra, 194 Cal.App.4th 736 (E.M.).

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. The Statutes Governing Late Claims by Minors

         As a general rule, a plaintiff must present a public entity with a timely written claim for damages before filing suit against it. (Shirk v. Vista Unified School Dist. (2007) 42 Cal.4th 201, 208 (Shirk). If a complaint does not allege facts showing that a claim was timely made, or that compliance with the claims statutes is excused, it is subject to demurrer. (Id. at p. 209.) At issue here are the statutes governing relief from failure to present a timely claim on behalf of a minor.

         Section 911.6, subdivision (b) (section 911.6(b)) states that a public entity “shall” grant a late claim application if “[t]he person who sustained the alleged injury... was a minor during all of the time... for the presentation of the claim.” (§ 911.6(b)(2).) A minor is entitled to relief whether or not the minor's parents or counsel acted diligently, so long as the application is made within the year after the cause of action accrued. (Hernandez, supra, 42 Cal.3d at pp. 1027-1030; see Rousseau v. City of San Carlos (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 498, 501.) As noted, if the entity “fails or refuses to act” on a late claim application, it “shall be deemed to have been denied on the 45th day” after it is presented. (§ 911.6(c).) J.M.'s principal contention is that the terms of section 911.6(b)(2), which required the District to grant his application, supersede the “deemed to have been denied” terms of section 911.6(c). He argues that the two subdivisions are irreconcilable, and the specific terms of subdivision (b)(2) must be given precedence over the general “default” provisions of subdivision (c). The premise is faulty. These provisions are readily reconciled.

         A minor is ordinarily entitled to relief upon a timely application under section 911.6(b)(2). We do not suggest it would be proper for an entity to routinely ignore late claim applications and resort to the “deemed... denied” provision of section 911.6(c) as a default procedure. Such applications should normally be reviewed and acted upon. But an entity may “fail[] or refuse[] to act” for a variety of reasons. (Ibid.) The timeliness of the application may be questionable due to uncertainty over when the cause of action accrued. The applicant's status as a minor during the relevant period may be disputable. The entity may have been unable to complete its investigation within the allotted time.[3] The entity might also simply fail to act on an application through inadvertence. In all circumstances, a late claim application is deemed denied ...

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