Tuesday
Dec222015

School District Ordered to Produce Records of Investigation

The Fourth Appellate District granted a petition for writ of mandate. The court held that the fact that a petitioner already possessed documents he was seeking under the California Public Records Act did not necessarily render his request moot.

John Caldecott worked in the human resources department of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. He filed a complaint about his supervisor. The complaint alleged a hostile work environment, as well as multiple other improprieties, including improper approval and reporting of compensation for an administrator; recommendations of pay increases using improper criteria; incorrect reporting of income used to calculate retirement income; approval of improper salaries for new employees; and failure to audit the retirement agency’s reporting practices.

The district allegedly failed to act on that complaint. Shortly thereafter, Caldecott was terminated.

Caldecott made a request to the district under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), asking that it produce copies of its response to his complaint against his supervisor and an e-mail Caldecott sent to the district’s board regarding its response to his complaint. The district refused.

Caldecott filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, seeking to compel the district’s release of the documents.

The trial court denied the petition, finding that his request was moot because Caldicott already had all of the documents he was seeking. Additionally, the court reasoned found the documents were directly and inextricably linked to Caldecott’s claim of a hostile and abusive work environment, which was an internal personnel matter exempt from disclosure under CPRA.

Caldecott petitioned the court of appeal for relief.

The court of appeal granted Caldecott’s writ petition, holding that the public interest in disclosure of the documents outweighed any privacy interests.

The court first addressed the trial court’s finding that Caldecott’s possession of the documents at issue rendered his request moot. That was error. The issue was not Caldecott’s current possession of the documents. Caldecott sought the documents so that he would be able to promulgate them publicly without fear of liability for doing so.

The court rejected as disingenuous the district’s claim that Caldecott was free to release any of the documents is his possession and that the district had not tried to keep him from doing so. If it did not object to such release, it would not have denied Caldecott’s CPRA request and strenuously opposed both writ petitions. The heart of the district’s opposition was that the documents should not be released due to the alleged privacy of their contents. On this record, the court found, Caldecott’s possession of the documents was not a basis to withhold them.

Turning to the merits, the court found a strong public interest in judging how Caldectt’s supervisor district responded to his claims, especially in light of his almost immediate decision to terminate Caldecott without cause. Likewise, there was a strong public interest in assessing how the district’s elected board treated the serious misconduct allegations against its highest ranking administrator. The numerous newspaper articles and blogs included in the record confirmed that public interest. Disclosure would shed light on the district’s performance of its duties.

Having conducted an independent review, the court further disagreed with the trial court’s overly generalized characterization of the documents as pertaining solely to Caldecott’s claim of a hostile work environment. They also pertained to Caldecott’s allegations of improprieties as to employee compensation, income reporting for retirement purposes, and audit reporting to the retirement agency. Caldecott’s own supervisory role in the district’s personnel department, and his 10-year tenure in that department, lent weight and credibility to his claims. The court found no evidence to support the district’s claim Caldecott was nothing more than a disgruntled employee.

The court remanded to the trial court with directions to conduct an in camera review of the requested documents to determine if any were protected by attorney-client privilege. The documents were also to be redacted to delete the identities of and personal information about unrelated third parties. The trial court was then to enter a new order compelling the district to produce the nonprivileged or redacted documents.

Caldecott v. Superior Court (Newport Mesa Unified School District)

Wednesday
Nov252015

Primary Assumption of Risk Bars Frightened Haunted House Patron. As the Trial Court stated: "Who would want to go to a haunted house that is not scary?"

The Fourth Appellate District affirmed a judgment. The court held that the operator of a Halloween attraction that was promoted as being scary was not liable to a patron who was injured after being frightened by the attraction.

The Haunted Hotel, Inc. regularly operated Halloween attractions during the weeks leading up to Halloween. One of those was the Haunted Trail, an attraction operated in San Diego County’s Balboa Park. Visitors to the Haunted Trail followed a trail through a wooded section of the park, where they encounters costumed actors who sought to frighten them with loud noises, bright lights, sudden gestures, and a variety of gruesome or threatening props, including axes and other weapons. Because the natural setting of the attraction included uneven ground, the visitors were advised not to run, and the actors were instructed not to chase after any visitor who did run.

At the final scene along the trail, three people with prop chainsaws—gas powered chainsaws with the chains removed—menaced patrons as they walked to an opening in the temporary chain link fence, covered with a dark screen, that ran along the edge of the trail. That opening appeared to be the exit from the attraction. The exit was merely illusory, however. Upon passing through the opening in the fence, guests found themselves on an access road where they encountered the final event on their journey: being accosted by what appeared to be yet another crazed madman wielding a chainsaw. The pretense was deliberate; the event organizer knew that the effect of this final episode would be intensified if patrons believed their adventure had already ended. The access road where this event occurred was controlled by Haunted Hotel.

Scott Griffin visited the Haunted Trail in 2011 with friends. He enjoyed his experience along the wooded portion of the trial, but believed the adventure was over when he left the woods and exited onto the access road. When he was suddenly accosted by a man wielding a chainsaw, he believed he was facing a real threat to his life. He ran, fell, and sprained his wrist.

Griffin sued Haunted Hotel for negligence and assault. He argued, in essence, that the play acting on the access road fell outside the scope of his agreement with the event operator because he was led to believe that the adventure for which he had paid had already ended.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Haunted Hotel, finding under the primary assumption of risk doctrine, that Griffin got the scary experience he bargained for, and the operator breached no duty to him.

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that risk that a patron will be frightened, run, and fall is inherent in the fundamental nature of a haunted house attraction like the Haunted Trail.

The court agreed with the trial court that the point of the Haunted Trail was to scare people, and the risk that someone would be scared and react by running away could not be eliminated without changing the basic character of the activity. As the trial court aptly noted, "Who would want to go to a haunted house that is not scary?"

There was no evidence creating a triable issue that Haunted Hotel unreasonably increased the risk of injury beyond the risks inherent in an attraction of this type. That Griffin believed he had left the event and, for that reason, experienced a type of fear different from the “fun” fear he experienced on the wooded trail did not make the operator liable for his injuries. Griffin’s subjective state of mind was simply irrelevant.

Because the primary assumption of risk doctrine focuses on the question of duty, its applicability is not dependent on either the plaintiff's implied consent to, or subjective appreciation of, the potential risk. Thus, even if Griffin was injured from his reaction to "scary fear" rather than "fun" fear, his subjective mental state was irrelevant. The risk inherent in the Haunted Trail's ending—that a patron would be lulled into a false sense of safety by a fake exit, and then be confronted with an extreme scare event—was exactly the risk Griffin experienced.

The court rejected as without merit Griffin’s argument that primary assumption of risk did not apply because "the location of the final scare took place outside the boundary of the Haunted Trail." The record was undisputed that the final event took place on an access road that was controlled by Haunted Hotel and intended by Haunted Hotel to be part of the Haunted Trail experience. Griffin’s argument that Haunted Hotel went outside the physical boundaries of its attraction was unsupported by the evidence.

The court rejected Griffin’s remaining contentions of error as similarly without merit.

Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel

Wednesday
Nov252015

Public Records Act Holding

Towing and impound records that discloses vehicle owner's address were exempt from disclosure under California Public Records Act .

County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Anderson-Barker)

2nd DCA

Friday
Oct022015

Minor's Petition for Relief From Claim Requirement was Untimely where not Filed within Six Months after Late Claim Application was Deemed Denied

The Fourth Appellate District affirmed a trial court order denying a petition for relief from a Government Claims Act timely claim requirement.  The court held that the trial court did not err in denying as untimely a minor’s petition to present a late personal injury claim to a school district where the petition was filed more than six months after the minor’s application to present a late claim to the school district was deemed denied by operation of law. 

The minor J.M. suffered head trauma during a school-sponsored football game as a student at Fountain Valley High School.  He continued to participate in full-contact practice and began to feel sick. 

J.M. was diagnosed with double concussion syndrome several days later, at which point his causes of action accrued.  He did not present a personal injury claim to the Huntington Beach Union High School District (District) within six months as required by Government Claims Act §§945.4 and 911.2. 

J.M. retained counsel, who timely presented an application under §911.4 to present a late claim on the ground J.M. was a minor for the six-month period following the accrual of his causes of action.  The District did not act on the application, so that pursuant to §911.6(c), J.M.’s application was deemed denied by operation of law. 

A year later, J.M. petitioned under §946.6 for an order relieving him of the claim requirement. The trial court denied the petition as untimely because it was filed more than six months after the date on which his application to present a late claim was deemed denied by the District’s inaction. 

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that the trial court did not err in denying J.M.’s petition.

The court of appeals concluded first that J.M.’s application for leave to present a late claim was deemed denied by operation of law when the District failed to act within 45 days.  Under §911.6(c): “[i]f the board fails or refuses to act on an application within the time prescribed by this section, the application shall be deemed to have been denied on the 45th day ....”

J.M. claimed that that section was irreconcilable with §911.6(b)(2), which provides that the board “shall grant the application” when the applicant was a minor. The court disagreed, concluding that there is no conflict or contradiction between the sections.  Simply put, while §911.6(b)(2) states that the board shall grant a minor’s application for leave to present a late claim, §911.6(c) addresses what happens when the board fails or refuses to act: the claim is deemed denied.  That was what happened here, and J.M.’s application was deemed denied by operation of law. 

The court rejected J.M.’s contrary arguments and observed that J.M. could not explain what the status of his application for leave to present a late claim would be, if it were not denied by operation of law.  The board had not granted or denied the claim.  J.M. admitted that the application had not been granted, yet he still argued that it had not been denied. 

When an application is denied by operation of law under §911.6(c), a claimant can challenge that denial only by petition to the superior court under §946.6 for relief from the claim requirement. The court reasoned that §946.6 supported its interpretation because it sets out nearly identical circumstances as those under which an application to present a late claim must be granted.  The section therefore recognizes that a board might deny, either expressly or by operation of law, an application to present a late claim brought on a ground set forth in §911.6(b) even though §911.6(b) states such application shall be granted.  J.M.’s approach, on the other hand, ignored and would nullify the procedures set out in §946.6 when a board fails to act on a §911.6(b) application. 

That meant J.M.’s petition was time-barred for not being filed within the six-month limitations period of §946.6.  Under §946.6(b)’s unambiguous terms: “The petition shall be filed within six months after the application to the board is denied or deemed to be denied pursuant to Section 911.6.” As a result, the trial court did not err by denying J.M.’s petition on the ground it was untimely under the applicable six-month statute of limitations of §946.6(b). 

The court disagreed with E.M. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 736 to the extent it held that a plaintiff who was a minor at the time injuries were suffered satisfies the claim requirement of §945.4 simply by presenting an application for leave to present a late claim under §911.6(b)(2). 

The court held further that the doctrine of equitable tolling did not apply, and the board was not required to give J.M. written notice of the denial of his application for leave to present a late claim under §911.8.

J.M. Huntington Beach Union High School District, October 1, 2015

Wednesday
Sep162015

Trial Court Improperly Denied Fees For Denial of Request for Admission of Liability

The Fourth Appellate District affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court order. The court held that a driver’s belief that he did not run a red light was not a reasonable basis for his denial of the injured plaintiff’s request for an admission of liability, where the evidence overwhelmingly supported a finding that he indeed ran a red light.

The jury found defenant was negligent and awarded Grace and his wife over $400,000 in damages.

Plaintiff then filed a motion to recover expenses incurred in proving the facts the defendant denied, seeking an award of almost $170,000 in attorney fees and just over $29,000 in costs. They argued the plaintiff did not have a reasonable basis for denying the requests.

The trial court denied the requests, finding, as to liability, that the denial was proper because the plaintiff reasonably thought he could prevail based on his belief about the color of the light when he entered the intersection.

The court of appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the defendant’s belief about the color of the light was not sufficient to support his denial of the plaintiffs’ request for admissions.

When a party propounds requests for admission of the truth of certain facts and the responding party denies the requests, if the propounding party proves the truth of those facts at trial, Code Civ. Proc. §2033.420(a) allows that party to seek an award of the reasonable costs and attorney fees incurred in proving those facts. Under §2033.420(b)(3) and (4), the trial court is required to award those costs and fees unless it finds the party who denied the requests “had reasonable ground to believe [he or she] would prevail on the matter” or “there was other good reason for the failure to admit.”

Here, defendant’s belief that the light was yellow was contradicted by eyewitness testimony, the police report, plaintiff’s testimony, and the testimony of an accident reconstruction expert who opined defendant was at fault. In light of all of this evidence, the court found, defendant's belief, however firmly held, was not reasonable. The question was not whether defendant reasonably believed he did not run the red light but whether he reasonably believed he would prevail on that issue at trial. In light of the substantial evidence defendant ran the red light, it was not reasonable for him to believe he would.

 

Grace v. Mansourian, 4th DCA, September 16, 2015