Monday, December 29, 2014

On the Elements of Equitable Estoppel

J.P. v. Carlsbad Unified School District, No. D062912 (D4d1 Dec. 12, 2014)

This is a case against a school for failing to stop one of its teachers from sexually abusing several students. During the investigation of the incident, school officials and the DA told the victim and her family that they shouldn’t talk to anyone concerning the incident, lest it endanger the criminal prosecution of the teacher. The parents scrupulously followed that advice, which—arguably as the school sees it—led to them never hiring a lawyer and thus blowing their deadline to file a Government Code claim against the school.

The parents argued that the school’s actions estopped the school from raising the claim deadline and the jury*—which awarded significant damages—agreed. The school appealed the judgment and a denial of a JNOV on the issue. The court of appeal affirms.

The main issue is whether the plaintiff needed to show that the school’s statements imploring her parents not to talk to anyone were “untrue.” The issue is raised three ways: as a sufficiency of the evidence issue, as instructional error, and in a challenge to the formulation of the special verdict form. 

As I have discussed previously (at length) the common four-element test for equitable estoppel includes the element that the “plaintiff was ignorant of the true state of facts,” but this element doesn’t actually sensibly apply to certain fact patterns that fall within the rubric of equitable estoppel. In particular, it doesn’t apply when the defendant induces the plaintiff to detrimentally rely on the defendant’s acts or statements in forbearing to bring suit. These kinds of statements don’t actually need to be false. They just need to be the kind of things that a reasonable person would understand to induce reliance. Like when a school and a prosecutor instruct parents not to talk to anyone about their child’s molestation by one of its teachers because doing otherwise might compromise the criminal prosecution of the molester.

The court gets to the right result. Plaintiff didn’t need to prove falsity, the court didn’t need to instruct on it, and the special verdict form didn’t need to poll on it. The opinion quotes the four-element standard, but suggests that it doesn’t always apply. It concludes that “[e]quitable estoppel does not require factually misleading statements in all cases,” and holds that a trier of fact could find an estoppel under the facts that applied here: when someone in authority made statements that reasonably induced a plaintiff from seeking legal advice and commencing litigation. 

On a related issue, the special verdict form wasn’t required to elicit findings from the jury on each element of the estoppel. The formulation of a special verdict form is within the sound discretion of the trial court. That discretion isn’t abused when, after instructing the jury on each of the factual elements, the form just asks whether or not the estoppel should apply.


*Why did the defense lawyers let this issue go to the jury? As a recent opinion explains, even though there’s a CACI instruction on it, equitable estoppel to raise the statute of limitations is an equitable issue for the court to decide. Presumably, like what apparently happened here, the parties could always implicitly consent to let the jury try the issue. 

But if you represent a school district in case where there is no dispute your employee molested a student—he’s been convicted— and there’s an exception to a defense—apparently, your only defense—that isn’t jury triable, seems like you might want to make sure that issue goes to the court, right? Because I find it incredibly hard to believe that any nine out of twelve residents of the County of San Diego are going to let the district off the hook, just because the victim didn’t file a code claim on time, particularly under the facts here. Juries just love letting unappealing defendants walk because the paperwork got messed up. 

Maybe the district wouldn’t have done much better before the court? I wasn’t there. But under the circumstances, anything better than zero would be something.

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