Don't Overlook Defects in the Presentment Notice Required by the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act
The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently dismissed a portion of a lawsuit against the Cambridge Public Schools because it found that the School Superintendent was not the correct municipal official to receive presentment of a claim under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), G.L. c.258, § 1-13, —an opinion that could have large implications for municipal clients served with presentment of claims under the statute. In particular, the decision affirms that school districts that are not regional districts are integrated departments of the municipality, not separate entities with independent legal status.
Doe v. Cambridge Public Schools involved a student who was suspended from the Cambridge Public Schools—a suspension that was ultimately removed from his record after an investigation by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The student alleged that he suffered anxiety, nervousness, and physical distress from the suspension. He therefore filed a lawsuit against the School District and included a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress under the MTCA.
Prior to the suit, the student’s attorney mailed a presentment letter to the Superintendent of the School District. The City responded to the student’s complaint by filing a motion to dismiss, alleging that the presentment was improper because the Superintendent is not the executive officer of the public employer as defined by the MTCA. The Superior Court denied the city’s motion but, on an interlocutory appeal, a majority of the Appeals Court panel agreed with the City and ordered that the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim be dismissed.
The MTCA requires that any tort claim against a public employer must be presented in writing to the “executive officer of such public employer” within two years of the date of the tortious act. G.L. c.258, §4. Section 1 of the MTCA defines “executive officer” of a city to be either the mayor or a designee by city charter. Section 4 of the MTCA adds that, in the case of a City or Town, presentment is sufficient if made to several individuals including the Mayor, the City or Town Manager, the municipality’s Counsel, the Clerk, or the Select Board. The Appeals Court held that the statute’s language is plain and unambiguous—a Superintendent is not included in the list of municipal officials for purposes of making a valid presentment.
The student, and the dissenting justice of the Appeals Court panel, argued that, since the action was filed against the School District, the Superintendent is the correct executive officer. The Appeals Court rejected that argument, however, because it found that the School District is not a legal entity, wholly separate and apart from the City itself; thus, the lawsuit against the School District is actually a lawsuit against the City (“with respect to public employees of a school committee of a city or town, the public employer for the purposes of the [MTCA] shall be deemed to be said respective city or town.”). G.L. c.258, §1. The Appeals Court also rejected arguments that DESE regulations and the Superintendent’s contract designated the position as the executive officer of the School District—those arguments were deemed irrelevant for purposes of MTCA presentment.