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Epstein v. State

May 12, 1998


Argued March 24, 1998

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.

Before: Judges Stern, Kleiner and Kimmelman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kimmelman, J.A.D.

This appeal concerns two issues arising under the notice provisions of the Tort Claims Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 59:8-1 to -11: (1) whether a notice of tort claim served upon the Attorney General is sufficient to alert local public entities to the same claim; and (2) whether the observance of the Jewish religious day of Yom Kippur excuses the late filing of a notice of tort claim.

Plaintiff Jamie Epstein appeals from the denial of his application for permission to file a late notice of tort claim, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:8-9, against defendants the State of New Jersey, the County of Camden, the City of Camden, *fn1 and the Town of Hammonton. The trial court concluded that plaintiff had failed to make a showing of extraordinary circumstances to excuse his failure to file, and further concluded that plaintiff's three and one-half month delay in seeking permission to file late constituted an "unexplained lack of diligence." *fn2 We affirm.


Plaintiff proposes an action for damages for malicious prosecution, libel, slander, defamation of character, and emotional distress arising out of certain facts, which we purposely set forth very generally because of their sensitive nature. On May 25, 1995, and again in September of 1995, plaintiff was arrested and charged with assault and endangering the welfare of children; his own and a child of his girlfriend. The Hammonton Police Department is alleged to have participated in plaintiff's initial arrest on a complaint from his ex- wife. The allegations resulting in the charges against plaintiff were reported to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) which, in turn, reported the matter to the office of the Prosecutor of Camden County, as it was authorized by law to do. See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10b(2). The Prosecutor's office also caused an arrest of plaintiff.

Some months later, in early May 1996, in open court and in the presence of plaintiff's then-attorney, the Camden County Prosecutor announced that all charges against plaintiff were being dismissed for lack of credible evidence. On June 4, 1996, DYFS mailed a letter to plaintiff, advising him that the case concerning the alleged assault on the children had been closed since October 4, 1995. By letter dated June 24, 1996, the Camden County Prosecutor formally notified plaintiff that the charges against him had been "administratively dismissed" on that date.


It is not necessary for us to decide whether plaintiff's cause of action, if any, accrued on the date of his arrest or at any other time prior to the sending of the June 24, 1996, letter from the Prosecutor confirming the administrative dismissal. Plaintiff takes the position that his alleged cause of action did not begin to accrue until he had notice that all charges were terminated in his favor and that his notice of claim was therefore timely filed. He relies upon The Penwag Property Co., Inc. v. Landau, 76 N.J. 595, 598 (1978), which holds that a malicious prosecution suit may not be brought until the prosecution is terminated. In the notice of tort claim which plaintiff faxed to the Attorney General on September 24, 1996, it is apparent that plaintiff believed that his alleged cause of action accrued, at the latest, on June 24, 1996, since he fixed that as the outside date of the occurrences giving rise to his alleged cause of action. Nonetheless, plaintiff urges that, since he did not receive the Prosecutor's notice of administrative dismissal until June 28, 1996, the alleged cause of action did not begin to accrue until that date. The motion Judge saw it differently, and concluded that the latest possible accrual date was June 24, 1996. He calculated the statutory ninety-day deadline to run from that date. We agree with that determination. The Prosecutor's administrative dismissal letter merely confirmed facts already known to plaintiff. There is no sound reason to fix the accrual date after June 24, 1996. *fn3


Initially, we observe that no notice of tort claim was ever served on the County of Camden. The Act provides that "[n]o action shall be brought against a public entity . . . unless the claim upon which it is based shall have been presented in accordance with the procedure set forth in this chapter." N.J.S.A. 59:8-3. The claim must be filed not later than the ninetieth day after the accrual of the cause of action, N.J.S.A. 59:8-8, and must contain the following information: (1) the name and address of the claimant and the address(es) to which notice should be sent; (2) the date, location, and circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim; (3) a description of the injury or damages claimed; (4) the name(s) of the public entity or employee involved; and (5) the amount claimed. N.J.S.A. 59:8-4. The "claim shall be signed," N.J.S.A. 59:8-5, and "shall be filed with [the local public] entity," N.J.S.A. 59:8-7.

Plaintiff made statements in court regarding his possible intention to sue, and made additional comments in a letter to the New Jersey Board of Psychological Examiners in which he complained about the ethics of a psychologist who participated in the DYFS investigation. That letter was copied to the Camden County Prosecutor. We find no merit in plaintiff's contention that his statements in court and the letter to an unrelated party were in substantial compliance with the Act's requirement that the County be placed on notice separately. Cf. Small v. Department of Corrections, 243 N.J. Super. 439, 446-47 (App. Div. 1990) (finding substantial compliance with N.J.S.A. 59:8-4 where plaintiff's counsel wrote to public entity two days after accrual, supplying all of the required information except the amount claimed, which could not have been ascertained at that time) (citing Anske v. Borough of Palisades Pk., 139 N.J. Super. 461, 466 (App. Div. 1976)).

Similarly, no notice of claim was ever served upon Hammonton or upon the City of Camden. Plaintiff contends that notice to the Attorney General constitutes notice to Hammonton and to the City of Camden. However, N.J.S.A. 59:8-2 and -10 make a clear distinction between a local public entity and the State. The Attorney General may receive a notice of claim against the State, but notice to the Attorney General is not tantamount to actual or constructive notice to a local public entity. See N.J.S.A. 59:8-10. The Legislature has ...

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