California Court Reaffirms that Litigation Threat Letters Should be Treated as Claims Under the Government Claims Act
Plaintiff Simms suffered injuries from a fall and sought treatment at a hospital operated by the Bear Valley Community Healthcare District (“Bear Valley”). (Simms, at p. *1.) Simms was dissatisfied with the care provided during his follow-up treatments and sent a letter to Bear Valley in May of 2018 threatening to “fil[e] a lawsuit for restitution” if, among other things, the hospital continued to provide inadequate care. (Ibid.) He did not receive a response to his May 2018 letter and sent another letter in July of 2019 titled “90-Day Notice of Intent to Sue as required by California Code of Civil Procedure § 364.” (Id. at p. *2.) Bear Valley treated the July 2019 letter as a claim under the Government Claims Act and notified Simms that his claim was not timely presented, thereby rejecting the claim. (Ibid.) Simms sought late claim relief from Bear Valley, which was denied, and then petitioned the Superior Court for relief from the claim presentation requirement. (Ibid.) In his petition, Simms alternatively argued that he had actually timely complied with the claim presentation requirement when he sent Bear Valley his initial letter in May of 2018. (Ibid.)
The Superior Court denied Simms’ petition as untimely. (Simms, at p. *2.) Separately, the court found that Simms’ earlier May 2018 letter did not qualify as a claim because it lacked the necessary information required by the Government Claims Act. (Ibid.)
On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeal considered two issues: 1) whether a petitioner seeking relief from the claim presentment requirement may alternatively argue timely claim presentment, or whether the claimant must concurrently file a civil action to allege timely compliance; and, 2) whether a letter threatening litigation that does not substantially comply with requirements for a government claim nonetheless constitutes a claim, thereby triggering a public entity’s obligation to notify the claimant of any insufficiencies, or risk waiving its defenses as to the claim’s sufficiency.
Wading into a split in authority among the California Courts of Appeal, the Simms Court holds that a claimant may assert actual compliance with claim requirements when seeking judicial relief from those requirements without concurrently filing suit alleging compliance.
For decades, California’s District Courts of Appeal have remained split on the issue of whether a claimant must file a complaint concurrently with a petition for relief from the claim presentment requirement in order to preserve the issue of whether they presented a timely claim. The Sixth District Court of Appeal determined that filing a complaint was not necessary to preserve the issue, and that a claimant could raise the issue for the first time in a petition for relief from the claim presentation requirement. (Santee v. Santa Clara County Office of Education (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 702 (Santee).) Meanwhile, the Second District Court of Appeal held that a claimant must always file a complaint alleging compliance with the claim presentation requirement, and simultaneously file a petition for relief from the requirement in order to preserve the issue. (Ngo v. County of Los Angeles (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 946 (Ngo).)
Because this split in authority had not been addressed by the Fourth District, the Simms case provided the court with an opportunity to take sides. In rejecting the Ngo approach requiring the pursuit of both a civil lawsuit and petition for relief, the Simms Court reasoned that requiring the simultaneous filing of a petition and a complaint unnecessarily multiplies the proceedings, particularly where the facts are undisputed. “[W]here the analysis does not rest on disputed issues of fact better postponed for determination by a jury, ‘the issue of timely filing of a claim may be determined in a claim-relief proceeding.’” (Simms, supra, at p. *4.)
The Simms Court also concludes that where a claimant presents an insufficient claim, the claim should be treated as a "trigger-claim" requiring a public entity to notify the claimant of the insufficiencies, or risk waiving its defenses as to sufficiency of the claim.
The Simms Court ultimately determined that Simms’ initial letter in May 2018 to Bear Valley constituted a claim—albeit a defective one. (Simms, supra, at p. *5.) “A claim has been presented to the public entity when the public entity ‘receives a document which contains the information required by [Government Code] section 910 and is signed by the claimant . . . .’” (Id. at p. *4; see also Gov. Code, § 910.2 [signature requirement]).) The information required by section 910 includes details of the occurrence, the amount of damages sought, and must also be addressed and delivered to the appropriate party.
The Simms Court found that Simms’ May 2018 letter complied in some respects with section 910, but did not substantially comply with all requirements. (Simms, supra, at pp. *5-6.) Nevertheless, because Simms’ letter detailed at some length what Simms perceived as inadequate medical treatment, defamatory statements by Bear Valley providers, and resulting injuries (even though unspecified), and definitively stated that litigation would ensue if Bear Valley did not address Simms’s complaints satisfactorily, the Simms Court held that the letter constituted a claim. In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that the information provided “was more than enough to afford Bear Valley the opportunity to investigate and, if it desired, to settle the matter with Simms.” (Id. at p. *6.) To the extent the claim was arguably defective, the court opined that it triggered Bear Valley’s statutory duty to notify Simms of its insufficiencies, and Bear Valley’s failure to timely do so resulted in a waiver of defenses based on those insufficiencies. (Id. at p. *9.) As a result, the Court held that Simms’ May 2018 letter satisfied the Government Claims Act’s presentment requirement, and Simms was allowed to proceed with filing a complaint against Bear Valley.
Simms is a cautionary tale. Public entities should carefully review correspondence to determine whether it may constitute a claim—even a defective one—so that the entity can take the necessary actions to preserve available defenses. The Simms decision is a stark reminder of the steep price to pay for failing to correctly identify, and timely respond to, claims.
Law Clerk Shireen Hundal is a co-author of this article.
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