Friday, February 25, 2011

Summary 2011 WY 35

Summary of Decision February 25, 2011

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: Brown v. City of Casper

Citation: 2011 WY 35

Docket Number: S-09-0263


Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County, Honorable W. Thomas Sullins, Judge

Representing Appellant: Thomas A. Valdez and Tamara K. Schroeder of Chapman Valdez, Casper, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee City of Casper: Patrick J. Murphy of Williams, Porter, Day & Neville, Casper, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee Eric E. Walters: Bruce A. Salzburg, Wyoming Attorney General; John W. Renneisen, Deputy Attorney General; and Thomas W. Rumpke, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Date of Decision: February 25, 2011

Facts: Appellant was injured when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a vehicle driven by Appellee Walters. Appellant presented a notice of claim to the Appellee City and subsequently filed a complaint in district court. The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Appellant failed to allege that he complied with the constitutional requirements for maintaining an action against a governmental entity.

Issues: Whether the District Court abused its discretion in refusing to allow Appellant to amend his complaint to correct a deficiency in an allegation and to conform to the undisputed facts of the case. Whether the District Court erred in ruling that the allegations contained in the Complaint, when viewed in the light most favorable to Appellant did not sufficiently allege the prerequisites for the District Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Whether the judicially created rules for pleading a governmental claim lead to injustice and are against public policy and should be abolished.

Holdings: While there is no question that presentation of a notice of claim is constitutionally and statutorily required before an action can be brought against a government entity, the rule the understandably but mistakenly attributed to a statement made in Board of Trustees of UW v. Bell, 662 P.2d 410 (Wyo. 1983) that district court jurisdiction is not invoked unless the complaint alleges compliance with the constitution and statute is inconsistent with prior precedent as well as statutory and constitutional provisions granting jurisdiction over these cases to the district courts. The Court resolves the inconsistency with prior precedent and holds that subject matter jurisdiction is invoked upon the filing of a complaint alleging a claim against a governmental entity. The Court will continue to require that complaints alleging claims against governmental entities must allege compliance with the statutory and constitutional provisions governing notices of claim. See Wyo. Stat. 1-39-113(d) (2010). However, in cases where a notice of claim has been properly presented but the complaint fails to allege that fact, district courts have the discretion to allow amendment of the complaint to cure the failure.

A litigant’s failure to allege compliance with the constitutional and statutory requirements does not and cannot affect a court’s subject matter jurisdiction to act. Pursuant to the constitution and the statute, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear and decide actions brought against governmental entities, whether or not compliance is alleged, if a notice of claim complying with the constitutional and statutory requirements has been presented. District courts also have jurisdiction to allow the amendment of a complaint to allege presentation of a notice of claim complying with the statute and constitution when such a notice was in fact timely presented. To the extent that Bell and its progeny held otherwise, those decisions are overruled.

In the instant case, the district court obtained subject matter jurisdiction of this action when Appellant filed his complaint alleging that he had complied with the requirements of the WGCA by presenting a notice of claim pursuant to Wyo. Stat. 1-39-113 to the Appellee City. Jurisdiction having been invoked by the filing of a complaint alleging a cause of action against a governmental entity, and thus a case within the general class over which the court’s authority extends, the district court had the power to hear and decide the case and enter judgment. To avoid dismissal of his complaint, it was incumbent upon Appellant to show that he had satisfied the condition precedent to maintaining an action against the City. Specifically, he had to show that within two years of the collision giving rise to his injuries he presented to the City an itemized statement in writing certified under penalty of perjury. When, in response to the Appellee City’s motion to dismiss, Appellant moved to amend his complaint to allege compliance with Wyo. Stat. 1-39-113 and Art. 16, § 7, and attached a copy of the notice of claim, which did comply with those provisions, the district court had the authority to exercise its discretion and allow the amendment. In accordance with W.R.C.P. 15(c), the amendment related back to the date Appellant filed his original complaint.

The district court had subject matter jurisdiction over this matter to determine whether Appellant complied with the requirements of Wyo. Stat. 1-39-114 and Art. 16, § 7. Upon presentation of proof that Appellant had complied with those provisions, the district court also had subject matter jurisdiction to allow him to amend his complaint to so allege. To the extent the Court’s holdings beginning with Bell have been contrary to this ruling, they are overruled. The action is reversed and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

J. Kite delivered the opinion for the court.

J. Golden filed a concurring opinion. Cases like the present one under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act often present straightforward issues of pleading which should be resolved under our rules of civil procedure. Prior cases requiring the specific pleading averment that the administrative claim was signed and certified under penalty of perjury pursuant to Article 16, Section 7, of the Wyoming Constitution, were in error because that requirement is contrary to the purposes set forth in our rules of pleading: a short and plain statement of the court’s jurisdictional grounds; each averment of a pleading shall be simple, concise, and direct and no technical forms of pleading are required; all pleadings shall be so construed as to do substantial justice; and it is sufficient to aver generally that all conditions precedent have been performed. If the defendant governmental entity believes that the plaintiff has failed to perform the condition precedent – filing a full itemized written statement certified under penalty of perjury – then W.R.C.P. 9(c) requires that defendant to make the denial of performance of that condition precedent “specifically and with particularity.” Presented with that denial, the district court is then able to make any necessary findings of fact on that issue. In other words, whether the claim meets the constitutional requirement is a simple matter of proof before the district court.

J. Voigt filed a dissenting opinion. Because the district courts can only adjudicate claims against governmental entities under the narrow confines of the WGCA, subject matter jurisdiction cannot be invoked upon the mere filing of a complaint alleging a claim against a governmental entity. Such would not even meet the requirements of W.R.C.P. 8(a), no less the WGCA and article 16, section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. Even where the general power over matters of the kind involved in a particular case exists the proceeding must be initiated in some particular manner. The nature of the WGCA, with immunity being the rule and liability the exception, convinces me that, in Wyo. Stat. 1-39-117 (2009), the legislature did not grant the district courts jurisdiction over all cases alleging a claim against a governmental entity, but only over those cases alleging claims made “under the act.” For that reason, making one’s claim under the act is jurisdictional.

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