How Not to Handle Government Claims – Good Advice For California Public Entities

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

Here is an anecdote of what not to do as a California Public entity.  The particular entity shall remain anonymous, because as a former government attorney, I am embarrassed for them.  It is a Joint Powers Authority within San Bernardino County.  This particular entity is not involved in a lot of litigation, so I understand why the front-line staff was not trained to deal with the situation.

Before you file a lawsuit against California public entities (with some exceptions, such as a 42 United States Code section 1983 case, or a constitutional tort like inverse condemnation), you are required to file a government claim (which used to be known as a tort claim).  The procedure is found in Government Code section 900 et seq.

Cities and counties get sued enough that you will easily be able to get a claim form and sometimes even instructions to file from them.  Many cities have the claim form online. The best practice is for cities and counties have claim forms that are fillable PDFs.

This particular entity did not have a claim form.  I had called to confirm this fact before hand.  I had to explain to them what I wanted to do, and they finally told me that they did not have such a thing.  That is not a problem, the requirements are found in the Government Code.

I went into the agency’s public entrance.   I told the front counter employee that I was there to file  government claims.  The counter employee did not understand.  The counter employee said  that it should have a purple stamp from the court.  The counter employee then said that  I told the counter employee that the claim had to be filed first (the claim is a prerequisite for suit).  The counter employee then went to find a supervisor.  The counter employee came back and told me that she had been instructed to return the paperwork to me and say goodbye.  I asked politely if there was anyone else I could speak to.  The supervisor came out.  I explained the process, and how the Government Code required that the claim be presented.  I told the supervisor and the counter employee, that they should keep the original of each claim, stamp it in, and give me back a stamped, conformed copy.  I told them that they should send it to their attorneys at a well-known local and statewide municipal law firm.  To their credit, the front-line staff gave me my conformed copies.  The problem was not with the front-line staff, but with higher level staff that has not trained the front-line staff.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

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