Weekly Law Resume - December 20, 2012: California Supreme Court Affirms Express Delivery Provisions of Government Claims Act

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Hope DiCampli-Mintz v. County of Santa Clara, et al.
California Supreme Court (December 6, 2012)

Government Code section 915(a) establishes the manner of delivery of a claim against the government. It requires that a claim be presented to a local public entity by “[d]elivering it to the clerk, secretary, or auditor” or by “[m]ailing it to the clerk, secretary, auditor, or to the governing body at its principal office.” If the claim is not presented in the foregoing manner, Government Code section 915(e) provides that a claim “shall be deemed to have been presented in compliance” if the claim is “actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity.” This case addresses to whom a claim must be presented in order to comply with the foregoing provisions.

On April 4, 2006, Hope DiCampli-Mintz underwent surgery by two doctors at Valley Medical Center (“VMC”), which is owned and operated by the County of Santa Clara (“the County”). After the surgery, Ms. DiCampli-Mintz complained of pain in her left leg. She was returned to surgery and ultimately discharged. Later that year, Ms. DiCampli-Mintz went to the emergency department of VMC. An emergency room physician informed her that another procedure was required because her blood vessels had been damaged in the first surgery.

Ms. DiCampli-Mintz retained counsel who prepared a letter to VMC and the two doctors who operated on Ms. DiCampli-Mintz, providing notice that “Hope DiCampli-Mintz will file suit against you for damages resulting from the personal injury of Hope DiCampli-Mintz” pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 364, which requires that a plaintiff give notice of intent to sue a health care provider 90 days before filing a complaint for negligence. The letter stated that the defendants negligently performed surgery, interrupted blood flow to Ms. DiCampli-Mintz’s leg, and then failed to repair the problem.

On April 3, 2007, counsel for Ms. DiCampli-Mintz personally delivered copies of the letter to an employee of the medical staffing office in the hospital’s administration building. The letters were addressed to the Risk Management Department at VMC and the doctors. The letter included a request that it be forwarded to the recipient’s insurance carrier, but did not request that it be forwarded to any of the statutorily designated individuals in Government Code section 915.

On April 6, 2007, the Santa Clara County Risk Management Department received the letter. On April 23, 2007, a representative of the County’s Risk Management Department spoke with counsel for Ms. DiCampli-Mintz. The representative, among other things, acknowledged receipt of the letter, orally opined that service on VMC required a tort claim which was late, questioned whether a tort claim was required as to the doctors, provided the name of the attorney handling the County’s defense, but did not mention that the letter failed to satisfy Government Code section 915’s delivery requirements. Ms. DiCampli-Mintz never received written notice that her claim was untimely or presented to the wrong party.

On July 2, 2007, Ms. DiCampli-Mintz filed a complaint naming the two doctors and VMC as defendants. In the complaint, she acknowledged that she was required to comply with government claims statutes but asserted that she was excused because defendants failed to provide notice and therefore waived any defenses they may have had to the sufficiency of her claim.

On August 29, 2007, the County filed an answer denying Ms. DiCampli-Mintz’s allegations and asserting affirmative defenses, including that she failed to comply with provisions of the California Government Claims Act.

The County filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that Ms. DiCampli-Mintz failed to comply with the Government Claims Act because her claim was never presented to or received by a statutorily designated recipient as required by section 915. Ms. DiCampli-Mintz argued that she “substantially complied” with the Government Claims Act by delivering the letter of intent to the Risk Management Department at the VMC and that the letter was also received by the County Risk Management Department.

The trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the County made a sufficient showing of noncompliance and that Ms. DiCampli-Mintz failed to “raise a reasonable inference that her claim was actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity within the time prescribed for presentation thereof.”

The Court of Appeal reversed and found that Ms. DiCampli-Mintz “substantially complied” with the claim presentation requirements. This appeal to the Supreme Court followed.

The Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeal’s “judicial expansion of the statutory requirements”, stating that “[t]he Court of Appeal erred by failing to adhere to the plain language of section 915” and that “[t]he proper construction of section 915 is dispositive.” The Supreme Court then pointed to the legislative history of the Government Claims Act, highlighting that Section 915(a)(1) reflected the Legislature’s intent to precisely identify those who may receive claims on behalf of a local public entity and Section 915(e)(1) reflected the Legislature’s intent that a misdirected claim will satisfy the presentation requirement if the claim is “actually received” by a statutorily designated recipient. As such a “straightforward construction honors the statutory language and is consistent with the purpose of the claims statutes.”

COMMENT

The DiCampli-Mintz decision confirms that courts should adhere strictly to the language of the claim presentation provisions when interpreting them. Additionally, the Supreme Court affirms that a claim must satisfy the express delivery provisions of the Government Claims Act. Failure to deliver a claim to the individuals identified in Government Code Section 915 will result in noncompliance with the statutory claim presentation requirements.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S194501.PDF

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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