Saylor v. State, 061920 NESC, S-18-794

Docket NºS-18-794
Opinion JudgeStacy, J.
Party NameJames Saylor, appellant. v. State of Nebraska ET AL., APPELLEES.
AttorneyMichael J. Wilson, of Berry Law Firm, for appellant. Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, Scott R. Straus, and, on brief, David A. Lopez, Deputy Solicitor General, for appellee State of Nebraska.
Judge PanelMiller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, and Funke, JJ. Heavican, C.J., and Papik and Freudenberg, JJ.
Case DateJune 19, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of Nebraska

306 Neb. 147

James Saylor, appellant.

v.

State of Nebraska ET AL., APPELLEES.

No. S-18-794

Supreme Court of Nebraska

June 19, 2020

1.

Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will affirm a lower court's grant of summary judgment if the pleadings and admitted evidence show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from those facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

2. ___: ___. In reviewing a summary judgment, an appellate court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the judgment was granted and gives that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences deducible from the evidence.

3. Tort Claims Act: Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act: Appeal and Error. Where the relevant facts are undisputed, whether the notice requirements of the State Tort Claims Act or the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act have been satisfied is a question of law, on which an appellate court reaches a conclusion independent of the lower court's ruling.

4. Statutes: Appeal and Error. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law, for which an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the decision made by the court below.

5. Administrative Law. Agency regulations that are properly adopted and filed with the Secretary of State have the effect of statutory law.

6. Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act: Notice. In cases under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, the substantial compliance doctrine applies when deciding whether the content of a claim satisfies the presuit claim presentment requirements in Neb. Rev. Stat. § 13-905 (Reissue 2012).

7. ___: ___. Substantial compliance with the statutory provisions pertaining to a claim's content supplies the requisite and sufficient notice [306 Neb. 148] to a political subdivision in accordance with the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act when the lack of compliance has caused no prejudice to the political subdivision.

8. Tort Claims Act: Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act. Generally, provisions of the State Tort Claims Act should be construed in harmony with similar provisions under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.

9. ___: ___. Under the State Tort Claims Act, when a question is raised about whether the content of a presuit tort claim complied with the manner in which the State Claims Board prescribed such claims to be filed, the substantial compliance doctrine may be applied, just as it is applied under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.

10. ___: ___. Under both the State Tort Claims Act and the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, application of the substantial compliance doctrine is limited to the content of a presuit claim. The doctrine of substantial compliance does not apply when considering whether a presuit tort claim has complied with statutory timing requirements or whether it has been served on the recipient described in the statute.

11. Tort Claims Act: Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act: Notice. Under both the State Tort Claims Act and the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, application of the doctrine of substantial compliance is confined to situations where the content of the tort claim nevertheless satisfies the primary purpose of the presuit notice requirements by notifying the state or political subdivision about possible tort liability for a recent act or omission so it may investigate and make a decision whether to pay or defend the claim.

Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: Robert R. Otte, Judge. Reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Michael J. Wilson, of Berry Law Firm, for appellant.

Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, Scott R. Straus, and, on brief, David A. Lopez, Deputy Solicitor General, for appellee State of Nebraska.

Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, and Funke, JJ.

Stacy, J.

James Saylor, an inmate at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (DCS), appeals from an order dismissing [306 Neb. 149] his lawsuit under the Nebraska State Tort Claims Act (STCA), 1based on a finding that Saylor failed to comply with the pre-suit filing requirements of the STCA.2 Because we find Saylor substantially complied with those requirements, we reverse, and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

Tort claims against the State are governed by the STCA.3 This case requires us to focus on the presuit administrative requirements of the STCA. Before suit can be commenced under the STCA, a claimant must present the claim in writing to the Risk Manager for the State Claims Board within 2 years after the claim accrued.[4] Pursuant to § 81-8, 212, such claim "shall be filed with the Risk Manager in the manner prescribed by the State Claims Board." Generally speaking, a claimant cannot file suit under the STCA until the Risk Manager or State Claims Board makes a final disposition of the claim.[5]However, if no final disposition of a claim has been made after 6 months, § 81-8, 213 authorizes the claimant to withdraw the claim and commence an action under the STCA.[6]

We have described the presuit claim presentment requirement in § 81-8, 212 and the final disposition requirement in § 81-8, 213 as procedural conditions precedent to commencing a tort action against the State in district court, and not as jurisdictional prerequisites for the adjudication of a tort claim against the State.7 Noncompliance with these procedural [306 Neb. 150] conditions precedent is considered an affirmative defense to be raised by the State.[8] We apply the same rules to the presuit claim presentment and final disposition procedures under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act (PSTCA).9 Under both the STCA and the PSTCA, the primary purpose of the presuit claim presentment procedures is the same: to notify the state or political subdivision about possible tort liability for a recent act or omission, to provide an opportunity to investigate the allegedly tortious conduct, and to enable the state or political subdivision to make a decision whether to pay or defend the claim.10

Saylor Files Tort Claims With Risk Manager Between June 12, 2016, and February 23, 2017, Saylor filed 16 separate tort claims with the Risk Manager.11 Pursuant to § 81-8, 212 of the STCA, these claims had to "be filed with the Risk Manager in the manner prescribed by the State Claims Board." Saylor filed all 16 of his claims using the standard form provided by the Risk Manager. Each claim form contained 18 fields requesting information regarding the claim. Some fields were marked with an asterisk indicating it was a "required" field. Further, each form contained a blank area with the following instructions: Provide detailed itemization of all known facts/ circumstances/damages leading to your claim. Identify all property, places, and people involved. Include names, [306 Neb. 151] addresses and phone numbers of witnesses, if any. The information provided herein, along with the findings of the investigating agency, will form the basis of any decision.

In this section, most of Saylor's claim forms described instances in which he claimed the actions of DCS or its employees either denied him timely medical care, aggravated his existing post-traumatic stress disorder, or deprived him of the use of devices that eased his pain. In a few claim forms, Saylor alleged DCS staff deprived him of the use of certain legal materials in his possession or interfered with his ability to meet with his attorney. Saylor generally stated that all these things caused him physical and emotional pain and suffering.

On each form, Saylor provided information in all required fields. One of the required fields, field No. 9, was titled "Total Amount of Claim." When completing field No. 9 on each claim form, Saylor wrote "[t]o be proven" without specifying a dollar amount.

The Risk Manager, in a series of letters, acknowledged receiving all of Saylor's claims. Those letters notified Saylor of the claim numbers assigned to his claims and advised it may take up to 6 months to receive final disposition. None of the letters indicated the claim forms were incomplete, and there is no evidence that additional information was requested from Saylor during the Risk Manager's investigation. The parties generally agree the Risk Manager denied Saylor's tort claims in a series of letters dated June 15, 2017. Those denial letters indicated that upon investigating the claims, "it was determined that there is no evidence of staff misconduct or negligence."

Complaint and Motion for Summary Judgment

On June 16, 2017, Saylor filed a complaint in district court against the State of Nebraska, DCS, and 10 unnamed DCS employees (the State). He thereafter filed an amended [306 Neb. 152] complaint, styled as 16 separate causes of action, each one premised on a tort claim previously submitted to and denied by the Risk Manager. The State moved to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim.[12] The parties stipulated to the receipt of evidence and agreed the motion should be treated as one for summary judgment.[13]

The State's sole argument for summary judgment was that Saylor failed to satisfy the claim presentment provisions of § 81-8, 212 with respect to his claimed damages. The State asserted, summarized, that § 81-8, 212 requires all tort claims to be filed "in the manner prescribed by the State Claims Board" and that regulations adopted by the State Claims Board14 require all claims to "contain all information called for" on the claim form.15 The State argued that Saylor's claims did not "contain all information called for" on the form because he did...

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