In the recent case of J.P. v. Carlsbad Unified School District, the California Court of Appeal barred a public entity from enforcing the six-month government tort claim requirement when it prevents the claimant from filing a claim within the limitations period.
In September 2007, J.P., a third grade student at Pacific Rim Elementary School, reported to her parents that her teacher had molested her. J.P.’s parents immediately reported the incident to the school principal, who promptly reported the incident to the Carlsbad Unified School District (“District”). The District’s assistant superintendent quickly placed the teacher on administrative leave, reported the incident to child protective services, began her own investigation, and contacted the district attorney’s office who began a criminal investigation.
During the investigations, the District and the principal continually told J.P.’s parents not to talk to anyone about the incident. They informed the parents that the prosecutor told them that any rumors about the incident would be detrimental to the criminal prosecution.
One year later, another Pacific Rim student, E.B., told her parents the same teacher had also molested her, and E.B.’s parents reported the molestation to the principal and the District. Once again, the District told E.B.’s parents they should not speak with anyone about the incident as it could endanger the criminal prosecution. The prosecutor reiterated the District’s instruction that the parents should not talk to anyone about the incident.
The following year, the teacher pleaded guilty following a plea bargain with the district attorney’s office. Approximately six weeks later, J.P. and E.B. presented government tort claims to the District. The District declined to take action finding the claims did not comply with Government Code section 911.2’s six-month time limit on the filing of government claims. (It should be noted this provision no longer applies to claims of childhood sexual abuse occurring after January 1, 2009 (see Gov. Code § 905(m))).
J.P. and E.B. then filed suit against the District claiming negligent supervision. At trial, the parents testified that the principal, the assistant superintendant and the prosecutor repeatedly instructed them not to discuss the case with anyone. They testified that as a result, they did not contact any attorneys to discuss a civil case until after the sentencing hearing. The jury found in favor of J.P. and E.B. on the negligent supervision claim, and further found that the District should be equitably estopped from enforcing the six-month limit on the filing of government claims.
The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding the record supported the minors’ claim of equitable estoppel. The court found, “it is well settled that a public entity may be estopped from asserting the limitations of the claims statute where its agents or employees prevented or deterred the filing of a timely claim by some affirmative act,” and that, “a public entity may be estopped where it has prevented a prospective claimant from obtaining legal advice.” The court also acknowledged that, “while CUSD administrators may not have intended to prevent J. and E. (or their parents) from filing government claims, such intent is not necessary for estoppel to apply.”
There was no allegation the District’s advice to the parents not to tell anyone about the incidents was made in order to trick the parents into failing to comply with the government claim requirements. In all likelihood, the District and its agents were in fact looking out for the best interests of the students and their parents and were genuinely worried rumors and other leaked information could damage the criminal case. But that is not the point. The point here is to remember the importance of clarity when communicating with parents and not crossing certain boundaries. The administrators were not necessarily wrong to advise the parents to avoid speaking widely about the incident, but in hindsight, their general and all-encompassing “gag-order” was far too broad. By giving such general instructions, the administrators’ actions were left open to interpretation and it was easy for the court to find that the District’s actions directly resulted in the parents’ failure to timely present the government claims.
In matters in which the District Attorneys’ office is involved, a school district should exercise extreme caution when it comes to advising parents. In this case, the District should have simply referred the parents to the District Attorneys’ office for guidance on issues surrounding the case. In situations where the District Attorneys’ office is not involved, but confidentiality is important, district personnel should avoid using sweeping language that could be interpreted to include not consulting with an attorney.
Finally, courts often reject tort claims act defenses – especially in high profile or sensitive cases – if there is any hint that a claimant could be unfairly prejudiced by enforcing the claim requirements.
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