Appellate Courts Reject Recreational Trail Immunity for Adjacent Hazards

August 2017
Number 47

Two decisions in the last three months have increased the potential for a public entity to be held liable for an injury suffered on one of its recreational trails. Appellate courts decidingGarcia v. American Golf Corporation (May 3, 2017, No. B267613) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ and Toeppe v. City of San Diego (July 27, 2017, No. D069662) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ held that a public entity cannot assert recreational trail immunity when an adjacent hazardous condition of the public entity’s property is unrelated to, or independent of, the trail. Previous decisions had broadly applied statutory recreational trail immunity to hazards on property adjacent to public trails.

The California Supreme Court denied review of the Garcia decision on August 9. As of this writing, no request for Supreme Court review has been filed in Toeppe.

Prior Law

Public entities generally are immune from liability for injuries caused by their recreational trails, pursuant to Government Code section 831.4. The statute specifically provides that a public agency is not liable for an injury caused by a “condition of” an “unpaved road” or “trail” used for general recreational purposes.

In the past, this immunity has been consistently interpreted to broadly protect public agencies from liability due to injuries from both design elements and locations of trails. InAmberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1074, the plaintiff was bumped off a path and started to slip down a hill. The court held that recreational trail immunity extended to both the design of a trail (the lack of handrails) and the location (the placement next to a steep slope). One year later, in Prokopv. City of Los Angeles (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 1332, the appellate court held that the “condition of” a bikeway included the design of a bicycle gate into which plaintiff had crashed, and that even though the injury occurred just off the bikeway itself, that the gateway to the bike path was “an integral part of the bike path.”

Earlier this year, in Leyva v. Crocket & Company, Inc. (2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 1105, an appellate court considered a case where the plaintiff was struck by a golf ball while on a publicly owned trail. The plaintiff argued that the lack of safety barriers on the adjacent golf course caused the injury, and that this condition was not a faulty design or condition of the trail. The appellate court disagreed and concluded that the immunity applied since the trail’s location next to the golf course was an “integral feature” of the trail, and the erection of a safety barrier would be equivalent to the installation of a handrail in Amberger.

The Garcia Decision

Factually similar to Leyva, the plaintiff in Garcia was a child in a stroller who was hit in the head by a golf ball while on a pedestrian walkway between a roadway and a golf course, which were all owned by a city. However, in Garcia the court concluded thatAmberger “did not hold that there must be immunity for every injury occurring on a trail when an adjacent public property was a contributing factor. … It identified the issue as whether the trail and an adjacent public property meet a relatedness test.” The court found that the trail and golf course did not pass this relatedness test, and it distinguished Leyva despite its strong factual similarities.

Consequently, the court issued a narrow holding: A public golf course cannot assert a recreational trail immunity defense when the trail abuts a public street; the course is a commercially-operated, revenue-generating enterprise; the course has a dangerous condition; and the dangerous condition caused harm to a user of the trail.

The Toeppe Decision

Issued by the same appellate district that issued Leyva, theToeppe decision used an approach similar to Garcia but stated a broader holding. The plaintiff was walking on a trail in a public park when a eucalyptus branch fell and injured her. The court distinguishedAmberger by saying that the tree was “independent of the trail” and that the dangerous conditions in the two cases were fundamentally different. The court also distinguished Leyva despite the fact that the hazardous condition in Leyva was off the trail and independent of it. The court concluded that the recreational trail immunity did not apply, holding that “this is not a case about trails. It is about trees.”

Impact on Public Agencies

Leyva still has some precedential value, but by tacitly disapproving that case, the Garcia and Toeppe cases seem to establish a new paradigm that limits public agency immunity for hazardous conditions
adjacent to recreational trails. Accordingly, public agencies may need to reassess the design, insurance, maintenance and use of their trails to minimize the risk of liability.

If you have any questions about these decisions or trail immunity in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

William P. Curley III

Partner

Arne B. Sandberg

Senior Counsel

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

New School Funding Scheme Does Not Eliminate Immunity From Federal Damage Claims

August 2017
Number 46

Changes to California’s school funding scheme did not eliminate local school district and county office of education immunity from federal claims for damages, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Sato v. Orange County Department of Education (9th Cir. 2017) ___ F.3d ___, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that California school districts and county offices of education retain their absolute defense to claims for damages in federal court due to sovereign immunity under the United States Constitution’s Eleventh Amendment, regardless of changes to California’s school funding scheme resulting from Assembly Bill (AB) 97’s creation of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

The Eleventh Amendment

The Eleventh Amendment bars federal lawsuits for damages against California and “arms of the state.” While the Eleventh Amendment “sovereign immunity” defense does not extend to counties and municipal corporations, it does extend to California community college districts, school districts, and county offices of education.

Background

Michael Sato was a systems database architect for the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE). After OCDE fired Sato within weeks of starting his job, he filed a federal lawsuit alleging breach of contract, wrongful termination and various federal constitutional claims. The district court granted OCDE’s motion to dismiss Sato’s constitutional claims for damages based on its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Sato subsequently dismissed his state law breach of contract claim voluntarily and appealed the dismissal of his federal claims to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s ruling and held that AB 97 did not abrogate sovereign immunity for school districts and county offices of education as previously established inBelanger v. Madera Unified School District (9th Cir. 1992) 963 F.2d 248 and Eaglesmith v. Ward (9th Cir. 1996) 73 F.3d 857.

The central question before the Ninth Circuit in Sato was whether, after AB 97’s establishment of the LCFF, school districts and county offices of education retained their status as “arms of the state” entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. In concluding that such entities, including OCDE, remain arms of the state, the court analyzed five factors:

  • Whether a money judgment would be satisfied out of state funds;
  • Whether the entity performs central governmental functions;
  • Whether the entity may sue or be sued;
  • Whether the entity has the power to take property in its own name or only the name of the state; and
  • The corporate status of the entity.

Since state and local revenue for schools remain commingled in a single fund under state control, even under the new funding system, the court determined that any use of commingled funds to satisfy a judgment necessarily amounts to the use of state funds. The court also held that OCDE performs central government functions, relying on prior case law that says that California law treats public schooling as a statewide or central government function. The court held that the first and second factor weighed in favor of Eleventh Amendment immunity and that AB 97 did not impact the analysis of the remaining three factors.

Applying the five-factor test, the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision and found that AB 97, which significantly reformed the financing and governance of California public schools, did not change the fact that school districts and county offices of education remain entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, thus barring claims for damages against them in federal court-whether based upon state or federal law.

Takeaways

Sato presented a novel argument: that the passage of AB 97, which reformed public education financing and decentralized education governance, abrogated previous Ninth Circuit decisions supporting that school districts and county offices of education are entitled to state sovereign immunity. However, the court held in Sato that school districts and county offices of education remain arms of the state and cannot be sued for damages in federal court.

The Eleventh Amendment defense for California’s community college districts also remains undisturbed by the Sato opinion.

Lozano Smith represented the Madera Unified School District in theBelanger case, which first established Eleventh Amendment immunity for California school districts facing damage claims in federal court.

For more information on the Sato decision or on school district and county office of education immunity from federal damage claims, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Sloan R. Simmons

Partner

Lauren A. Lymen

Associate

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Denial of Government Grant to Church

July 2017
Number 45

The United States Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state policy excluding churches from participating in a government benefit program solely based on their religious status. This is a reminder that public agencies cannot deny religious institutions participation in government programs designed to promote a public benefit solely because of the institution’s religious character. (Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Carol S. Comer (2017) 582 U.S. ___.)

Trinity Lutheran Church sought to replace its gravel playground for its preschool and daycare center with a rubber surface. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offered reimbursements to qualifying nonprofit organizations that installed playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Although Trinity ranked fifth among the 44 grant applicants, it was deemed categorically ineligible under the department’s view that it could not provide financial assistance directly to a church.

Trinity sued in federal court, alleging the department’s failure to approve its application violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The federal district court and Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the
department’s favor, but the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the department’s policy violated the Free Exercise Clause. The Supreme Court held that what constituted discrimination by the department was not the denial of the grant to Trinity, but rather the refusal to allow Trinity to compete with secular organizations for a grant solely because it is a church.

In reaching this conclusion, the court disagreed with the department’s reliance on Locke v. Davey, a prior Supreme Court opinion in which the Court held that the Free Exercise Clause was not violated when the State of Washington denied a scholarship to a recipient planning to pursue a theology degree. The Trinity court found the scholarship recipient in Locke was not denied a scholarship because of who hewas; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposedto do with it (i.e., use it to pay for a religious education), as opposed to Trinity, which was denied a grant simply because of what it is – a church. The Trinity court confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.

The decision has potential impacts with regard to school vouchers. Many voucher supporters are viewing Trinity as a victory. Voucher opponents do not interpret Trinity as opening the door for states to expand school vouchers based upon a footnote which states that the decision does not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has already sent two cases back to their state supreme courts for reconsideration due to the Trinity opinion. One is a 2015 judgment from the Colorado Supreme Court striking down a school voucher program held to have violated the state’s constitution, which prohibits public funding of religious schools. The second is a 2015 New Mexico case which upheld a state-funded textbook lending program that excluded religious and private schools based on the New Mexico state constitution. As such, while the opinion inTrinity focuses on a grant applicant’s religious identity, the issue of unlawful discrimination based upon religion in the context of government vouchers for religious schools is likely the next fight in this legal arena.

For more information on the Trinity opinion or issues of religion and public agencies, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Michael E. Smith

Partner

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Supreme Court Finds Trademark Disparagement Clause Unconstitutional

July 2017
Number 44

The United States Supreme Court has held that trademarks are private speech protected by the First Amendment, even if some find the ideas they express offensive.

In Matal v. Tam (2017) 582 U.S. ___, the Court held the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause to be unconstitutional because it discriminated based on a viewpoint. The Court, noting that the First Amendment is a bedrock principle of government, wrote that the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because some may find the ideas offensive.

In Matal, a dance-rock band named the The Slants applied for federal trademark registration of the band’s name. The application was denied under the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause because the band name is a derogatory term for individuals of Asian descent.

The Court concluded that trademarks are private speech protected by the First Amendment, not government speech, since concluding otherwise would mean the government could silence or muffle expression of disfavored viewpoints by simply affixing a government seal of approval such as a trademark. The Court also rejected the contention that the disparagement clause is commercial speech.

In holding that denial of the trademark application was an unconstitutional bar on private speech, the Court rejected the notion that a trademark is a form of government subsidized speech because the Patent and Trademark Office does not pay money to parties seeking registration of a mark – an applicant for registration must pay a filing fee. The Court also struck down the argument that the disparagement clause is constitutional under a “government program” doctrine which is based on a merger of government speech and subsidy cases.

School districts should keep in mind that staff and students have a right to freedom of speech while on school grounds, subject to certain limitations. Therefore, before regulating the speech of a student or a staff member, districts should ensure that the regulation is not based on the content of the viewpoint being expressed, even if that viewpoint might be offensive to the school board or others in the school community. As a general rule, districts should assume that the speech is lawful and then do a careful analysis to determine if the speech can be regulated before acting.

For more information on the Matal case or on free speech issues in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Michael E. Smith

Partner

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

New Law Removes Restriction on Funding Student Field Trips

July 2017
Number 43

A bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown on July 10 allows school districts to pay the expenses of students participating in field trips or excursions to other states, the District of Columbia or a foreign country. Assembly Bill (AB) 341 goes into effect on January 1, 2018.

Education Code section 35330(b)(3) currently prohibits the use of school district funds to pay the expenses of a student participating in a field trip or excursion to any other state, the District of Columbia or a foreign country. The bill deletes this provision.

The bill notes that the Local Control Funding Formula identifies student engagement as a state priority that local school districts must address and says that out-of-state travel increases student access to educational opportunities, including competitions and televised events.

Until the bill goes into effect, school districts wishing to use district funds to cover students’ out-of-state or country travel expenses must obtain a waiver from the State Board of Education. Since 2011, the State Board has approved eight waivers authorizing a school district to pay a student’s out-of-state or country field trip expenses, the bill says.

In order to reflect this new authority, school districts may need to update their board policies and administrative regulations.

If you have any questions regarding use of school district funds for educational out-of-state and international travel, please contact the author of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Lawmakers Extend Deadline for Proposition 39 Energy Efficiency Funding and Create New Program

July 2017
Number 42

State lawmakers have extended the deadlines to apply for and encumber money dedicated to energy efficiency projects at schools and community colleges – the program known as Proposition 39 – and have created a new program to fund such projects indefinitely.

Proposition 39 was scheduled to sunset June 30, 2018. Now, Senate Bill (SB) 110 has extended the deadline for encumbering Proposition 39 funds by one year, to June 30, 2019. At the same time, the bill creates the Clean Energy
Job Creation Program, which will administer funds for energy efficiency projects at school districts, charter schools, county offices of education and community colleges. The program opens for business at the start of the
2018-19 fiscal year.

After the bill’s passage, the California Energy Commission sent out a notice extending the deadline for submitting an energy expenditure plan to January 12, 2018. The original deadline had been August 1, 2017. Amendments to an existing energy expenditure plan that request additional funds must also be submitted by January 12, 2018.

Under SB 110, in order to take advantage of Proposition 39, agencies now have until June 30, 2019 to encumber those funds. The California Energy Commission defines “encumbrances” as “obligations in the form of purchase orders, contracts, salaries, and other commitments chargeable to an appropriation for which a part of the appropriation is reserved.”

After March 1, 2018, SB 110 reappropriates the remaining money in the existing Proposition 39 fund based on the number of school districts, charter schools and county offices of education that have not yet submitted energy expenditure plans. The bill devotes $75 million to loans or grants for school bus replacements or retrofits, prioritizing funding to agencies with the oldest school buses or those operating in disadvantaged communities. It also authorizes $100 million for low- and no-interest revolving loans for projects and technical assistance aimed at expanding clean energy generation and improving energy efficiency, prioritizing funding based on diversity in geographic and agency size, energy savings and the percentage of low-income students served.

Any remaining money from Proposition 39 will be used to provide competitive grants to school districts, charter schools and county offices of education for energy efficiency and generation projects, with 10 percent going to education agencies with 1,000 or fewer students, 10 percent going to agencies with between 1,001 and 2,000 students and the rest going to larger education agencies.

Under the new Clean Energy Job Creation Program beginning in 2018-19, 11 percent of available funds will be allocated to the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges for distribution to community college districts for energy efficiency projects, and the California Energy Commission will distribute the rest to school districts, charter schools and county offices of education.

Projects will be selected based on in-state job creation and energy benefits. Priority for grants made through the new program will be given based on the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, geographic diversity, school type and local area workforce needs. Funding will be available as appropriated in the annual budget act. Both the reallocated funds and money provided to local education agencies under the new program must be encumbered within nine months of allocation to those agencies.

Lozano Smith will provide additional details about the new program as they emerge. If you have any questions about SB 110, Proposition 39 or energy efficiency projects in general, please contact the author of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

California Travel Ban Does Not Apply to Local Agencies

July 2017
Number 41

A California law that bars state agencies from funding travel, and from requiring employees to travel, to states that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression – and Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s recent expansion of the list of states covered by the ban – have raised questions regarding whether the law applies to cities, counties, school districts and community college districts.

While there is no definitive legal guidance on the issue, the law expressly applies to state agencies, departments, boards, authorities and commissions, including the University of California and the California State University system. As “state agencies,” it appears the law also applies to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the California Department of Education. AB 1887 does not state that it applies to cities, counties, school districts or community college districts, nor do these entities appear to be state agencies under the law.

The acting general counsel of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office agrees: In a June 29 legal update, he said that while the restrictions apply to the chancellor’s office itself, community college districts are local education agencies that are not covered by the ban. Still, the letter cautioned local community college districts that the chancellor’s office may not be able to approve a request for state-funded travel to any of the states covered by the ban.

Effective January 1, 2017, Government Code section 11139.8 (enacted by Assembly Bill (AB) 1887) prohibits California state agencies, departments, boards, authorities and commissions from requiring any state employees, officers or members to travel to other states that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression and also, from approving a request for state-funded or state-sponsored travel to a state that has passed such a law.

AB 1887 prohibits travel to any state that has enacted a law after June 26, 2015 that voids or repeals existing state or local protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression or permits discrimination against same-sex couples or their families on those bases.

The original list of states covered by the ban included Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. On June 22, Becerra added Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota and Texas to the list after those states approved laws that permit such discrimination.

Exceptions to the travel restrictions include:

  • Enforcement of California law, including auditing and revenue collection;
  • Litigation;
  • To meet contractual obligations incurred before January 1, 2017;
  • To comply with requests by the federal government to appear before committees;
  • To participate in meetings or training required by a grant or required to maintain grant funding;
  • To complete job-required training necessary to maintain licensure or similar standards required for holding a position, in the event that comparable training cannot be obtained in California or a different state not subject to the travel prohibition; and
  • For the protection of public health, welfare or safety, as determined by the affected agency, department, board, authority, commission or legislative office.

If local government agencies intend to use state grant money for travel to any of the states covered by the ban, they should check to determine if the travel restrictions are included as a condition of the grant. In addition,
local agencies may have adopted their own policies that mirror AB 1887.

Additional information about AB 1887 and the states the travel ban applies to is available on the Attorney General’s website. For more information on AB 1887, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our nine offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Stephanie M. White

Associate

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.