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Government Claim Cannot Simply Be Handed to a Public Entity Employee

Yesterday the California Supreme Court issued an opinion on whether or not the delivery of a government claim presented to a public entity for consideration satisfied the requirements of the Government Claims Act—granting a victory to public entities.

The Court issued its opinion, Dicampli-Mintz v. County of Santa Clara (December 6, 2012, S194501) in response to an argument that the substantial compliance doctrine excuses a potential plaintiff’s statutory requirements under Government Code section 915, subdivision (a) relating to delivery of a claim.

The Supreme Court rejected the prior appellate court’s holding that a claim “may substantially comply with the [Government Claims Act] . . . if it is given to a person or department whose functions include the management or defense of claims against the defendant entity.”

In rejecting that position, the California Supreme Court explicitly held that a claim must satisfy the express delivery provisions of the statute, which require a claim to be delivered or mailed to the “clerk, secretary or auditor” or actually be received by the “clerk, secretary or auditor, or board of the local public entity.”

The matter came to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal held that a Plaintiff’s attorney’s submission of a letter addressed to the County’s risk management department advising of his intent to commence suit “substantially complied” with the presentation requirements of the Government Claims Act.

However, the Supreme Court held that the appellate court erred by failing to adhere to the plain language of the claims presentation statues. The plaintiff’s claim was never actually presented to the “clerk, secretary or auditor.” The “clerk, secretary or auditor, or board” never actually received the claim. Therefore, the Supreme Court determined that the specific requirements established by Government Code section 915 were not satisfied.

In overruling prior appellate decisions on the matter, the Court explained that “[b]y placing a duty on a public employee who receives a misdirected claim to forward it to the proper agency, Jamison improperly shifted the responsibility for presenting a claim from the claimant to the public entity” while creating uncertainty about how and where claims must be delivered.

Although the Supreme Court’s opinion only addressed a limited portion of the claims presentation requirement, its holding may provide substantial support for public entities attempting to challenge claims that are otherwise not in full compliance with the Act.

In disproving cases which appeared to relax the claims presentation requirements, the Supreme Court confirmed that the goal of the Government Claims Act is to eliminate uncertainty in the claims-presentation requirements.