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Robert K. Brown v. City of Casper and Officer Eric E. Walters

February 25, 2011

ROBERT K. BROWN, APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
CITY OF CASPER AND OFFICER ERIC E. WALTERS, INDIVIDUALLY, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



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

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Chief Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT*, and BURKE, JJ.

KITE, C.J., delivers the opinion of the Court; GOLDEN, J., files a specially concurring opinion; VOIGT, J., files a dissenting opinion.

*Chief Justice at time of oral argument.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] Robert K. Brown was injured when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a vehicle driven by Casper Police Officer Eric E. Walters. Mr. Brown presented a notice of claim to the City of Casper (City) and subsequently filed a complaint in district court. The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Mr. Brown failed to allege that he complied with the constitutional requirements for maintaining an action against a governmental entity. We reverse.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Brown presents the issues for this Court's consideration as follows:

1. The District Court abused its discretion in refusing to allow [him] to amend his complaint to correct a deficiency in an allegation and to conform to the undisputed facts of the case.

2. The District Court erred in ruling that the allegations contained in the Complaint, when viewed in the light most favorable to [him], did not sufficiently allege the prerequisites for the District Court's subject matter jurisdiction.

3. The judicially created rules for pleading a governmental claim lead to injustice and are against public policy and should be abolished.

The City and Officer Walters assert the district court correctly concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to proceed, denied the motion to amend and dismissed the case with prejudice.

FACTS

[¶3] On April 28, 2007, Mr. Brown was traveling northbound on Wolcott Street in Casper, Wyoming. Officer Walters was driving westbound on East 12th Street. At the intersection of the two streets, Officer Walters failed to stop for a red light and collided with Mr. Brown's vehicle. Officer Walters was on duty at the time of the accident and was acting within the scope of his employment.

[¶4] Mr. Brown presented a notice of claim to the City on April 25, 2008, within one year of the collision. On April 16, 2009, less than two years after the collision, Mr. Brown presented an amended notice of claim, more fully setting forth the damages he sustained in the collision. On April 23, 2009, less than one year after presenting his notices of claim, Mr. Brown filed a complaint against the City and Officer Walters in district court. In his complaint, Mr. Brown alleged that "all requirements of the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, Wyoming Statute § 1-39-101 et. seq. ., have been complied with, and a claim in conformity therewith was served upon the City of Casper, pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann., 1999 §§ 1-39-113(c) . on April 25, 2008 and an Amended Claim . delivered . to the City of Casper . . . on the 16th day of April, 2009." Although Mr. Brown alleged that a copy of the notice of claim was attached to the complaint as exhibit A, there is no attachment to the complaint contained in the appellate record.

[¶5] The City and Officer Walters answered the complaint. In its answer, the City denied Mr. Brown's allegation that he had met the requirements of the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act (WGCA) and asserted as an affirmative defense that he had failed to comply with those requirements. On July 16, 2009, both the City and Officer Walters filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, claiming they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Mr. Brown had not properly invoked the district court's jurisdiction within one year of presenting his notice of claim. Specifically, they asserted the allegation in the complaint was insufficient to invoke jurisdiction in that it did not allege compliance with the requirements of the Wyoming Constitution, Art. 16 §[¶6] On July 17, 2009, the day after the City and Officer Walters filed their motions and supporting memoranda, Mr. Brown filed a motion to amend his complaint to reflect that the notice of claim he had presented to the City complied with the constitution. The amended complaint attached to his motion alleged that "all requirements of Article 16, § 7 . . . have been complied with." Mr. Brown also attached the amended notice of claim he had presented to the City on April 16, 2009. The City and Officer Walters filed memoranda opposing Mr. Brown's motion, asserting the district court had no jurisdiction to consider it.

[¶7] After further briefings by the parties, the district court convened a hearing on the motions. Following the hearing, the district entered an order converting the W.R.C.P. 12(c) motions for judgment as a matter of law to Rule 56 motions for summary judgment and granting summary judgment for the City and Officer Walters. The district court's order states:

[Mr. Brown]'s complaint fails to contain an allegation that he complied with the Wyoming Constitution and, therefore, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under Wyoming Supreme Court precedent. See McCann v. City of Cody, Wyoming, 2009 WY 86, 211 P.3d 1078 (Wyo. 2009); and see Beaulieu v. Florquist, 2004 WY 31, ¶ 14, 86 P.3d 863, 868 (Wyo. 2004) (Beaulieu II) . . . . Without subject matter jurisdiction, the Court FURTHER FINDS it lacks any authority to grant [Mr. Brown]'s motion to amend his Complaint. See Gose v. City of Douglas, 2008 WY 126, ¶ 19, 193 P.3d 1159, 1164 (Wyo. 2008) . . . . The only action the Court can take is to deny [Mr. Brown]'s motion to amend his Complaint . . ..

Finding that it was not possible at that point for Mr. Brown to sue the City or Officer Walters within the time period specified in § 1-39-114 of the WGCA, the district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice. This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶8] The district court ruled as a matter of law that Mr. Brown's complaint must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Cantrell v. Sweetwater County School Dist. No. 2, 2006 WY 57, ¶ 6, 133 P.3d 983, 985 (Wyo. 2006).

DISCUSSION

[¶9] The district court concluded it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this governmental claim case such that it could not consider a motion to amend the complaint because binding precedent dictated that conclusion. 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 this Court understandably but mistakenly has attributed to a statement made in Board of Trustees of UW v. Bell, 662 P.2d 410, 415 (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. We resolve the inconsistency with prior precedent and hold that subject matter jurisdiction is invoked upon the filing of a complaint alleging a claim against a governmental entity. We continue to require that complaints alleging claims against governmental entities must also allege compliance with the statutory and constitutional provisions governing notices of claim. See § 1-39-113(d) (LexisNexis 2009 & Supp. 2010). However, we clarify that 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.

[¶10] Having performed a lengthy and thorough analysis of Wyoming legal principles relating to subject matter jurisdiction and governmental claims, we conclude Bell has mistakenly been interpreted to mean that courts have no power to act in a case against a governmental entity unless the complaint alleges presentation of a notice of claim. Contrary to that interpretation, Bell had to have meant that dismissal was appropriate in that case because it did not appear the condition precedent to suit had been met. In order to understand this distinction, it is appropriate to begin with a discussion of the law preceding Bell.

1. Wyoming Law Before Bell

[¶11] Article 5, § 1 of the Wyoming Constitution provides:

The judicial power of the state shall be vested in the senate, sitting as a court of impeachment, in a supreme court, district courts, and such subordinate courts as the legislature may, by general law, establish and ordain from time to time.

Article 5, § 10 provides further:

The district court shall have original jurisdiction of all causes both at law and in equity and in all criminal cases, of all matters of probate and insolvency and of such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for. The district court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in ...


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