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Sorenson v. Batchelder

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

May 12, 2016

Cheryl M. Sorenson, Plaintiff-Respondent-Petitioner,
v.
Richard A. Batchelder, Defendant-Appellant, United Healthcare Insurance Company, Defendant.

ORAL ARGUMENT: January 20, 2016

Milwaukee Circuit, L.C. No. 2013CV5012, Michael Guolee Judge

REVIEW OF A DECISION OF THE COURT OF APPEALS

For the For the plaintiff-respondent-petitioner there were briefs by Timothy W. Schelwat, Jason F. Abraham and Hupy and Abraham, S.C., Milwaukee. Oral argument by Jason F. Abraham.

For the defendant-appellant, the cause was argued by Jennifer L. Vandermeuse, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

ABRAHAMSON, J., joined by BRADLEY, A. W., J.

PATIENCE DRAKE ROGGENSACK, C.J.

¶1 We review an unpublished decision of the court of appeals, [1] which reversed an order of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court[2] denying defendant Richard A. Batchelder's (Batchelder) motion to dismiss for improper service of notice of claim.

¶2 After sustaining property damage and personal injury in a car accident occasioned by State employee Batchelder, Cheryl M. Sorenson (Sorenson) delivered notice of claim to the attorney general by personal service and subsequently instituted a negligence action against Batchelder. Batchelder moved to dismiss, arguing that Sorenson did not strictly comply with Wis.Stat. § 893.82 (2013-14), [3] which requires service of notice of claim on the attorney general by certified mail.

¶3 The central issue before us is whether Sorenson's personal service of notice of claim satisfies Wis.Stat. § 893.82 such that her claim against Batchelder may be continued. We conclude that personal service does not comply with the plain language of § 893.82(5) because it requires service of notice of claim on the attorney general by certified mail. As § 893.82(2m) mandates strict compliance with requirements of § 893.82 in order to institute an action against a state employee, and Sorenson's service failed to so comply, we affirm the dismissal of Sorenson's claim against Batchelder. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

I. BACKGROUND

¶4 On October 28, 2010, Batchelder was operating a motor vehicle in his capacity as an employee of the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA).[4] Batchelder's vehicle rear-ended the vehicle of a third party, causing that vehicle to rear-end Sorenson's vehicle. Sorenson alleges property damage, as well as personal injury, resulting from the accident.

¶5 On January 18, 2011, Sorenson served notice of claim on the attorney general by personal service at the attorney general's office in the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Personal service was accepted by a state employee, who acknowledged its receipt at the time of delivery. The notice of claim was then forwarded to the attorney general's Main Street office in Madison where it was processed and endorsed by another state employee on January 19, 2011; thereafter, it was returned to Sorenson's attorney's office.

¶6 On February 28, 2011, after investigating Sorenson's claim, the Bureau of State Risk Management issued a check to Sorenson in the amount of $241.45 as payment in full for the damage sustained by her vehicle as a result of the accident.[5]The Bureau of State Risk Management also issued a letter to Sorenson, stating that "[t]his payment does not represent an admission of any liability on the part of the state, or any of its employees or agents, and is not a waiver of any defenses the state, or any of its employees or agents, may have."[6]

¶7 On May 28, 2013, Sorenson instituted a negligence action against Batchelder, [7] who filed a motion to dismiss due to improper service of notice of claim. Specifically, Batchelder argued that Sorenson did not satisfy Wis.Stat. § 893.82, which requires service by certified mail and, because Sorenson employed personal service, she did not strictly comply with the statute. The circuit court denied Batchelder's motion to dismiss, concluding that service was proper because the attorney general received notice of claim and, therefore, received all that was required.

¶8 The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the plain meaning of Wis.Stat. § 893.82(5) requires service by certified mail and that Sorenson failed to strictly comply with the statute by personally serving notice of claim.

¶9 We granted Sorenson's petition for review.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

¶10 Batchelder's motion to dismiss requires us to interpret and apply Wis.Stat. § 893.82. Interpretation and application of a statute present questions of law that we review independently, while benefitting from the analyses of the circuit court and court of appeals. Pool v. City of Sheboygan, 2007 WI 38, ¶9, 300 Wis.2d 74, 729 N.W.2d 415.

B. General Principles of Statutory Interpretation

¶11 "[S]tatutory interpretation 'begins with the language of the statute. If the meaning of the statute is plain, we ordinarily stop the inquiry.'" State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cnty., 2004 WI 58, ¶45, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110 (quoting Seider v. O'Connell, 2000 WI 76, ¶43, 236 Wis.2d 211, 612 N.W.2d 659). Plain meaning may be ascertained not only from the words employed in the statute, but also from the context.[8] Id., ¶46. We interpret statutory language in the context in which those words are used; "not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results." Id. Statutory history aids in a plain meaning analysis. Adams v. Northland Equip. Co., 2014 WI 79, ¶30, 356 Wis.2d 529, 850 N.W.2d 272.

¶12 "If the words chosen for the statute exhibit a 'plain, clear statutory meaning, ' without ambiguity, the statute is applied according to the plain meaning of the statutory terms." State v. Grunke, 2008 WI 82, ¶22, 311 Wis.2d 439, 752 N.W.2d 769 (quoting Kalal, 271 Wis.2d 633, ¶46). However, where the statute is "capable of being understood by reasonably well-informed persons in two or more senses[, ]" then the statute is ambiguous. Kalal, 271 Wis.2d 633, ¶47. Where the language is ambiguous, we may then consult extrinsic sources, such as legislative history. Id., ¶50. "While extrinsic sources are usually not consulted if the statutory language bears a plain meaning, we nevertheless may consult extrinsic sources 'to confirm or verify a plain-meaning interpretation.'" Grunke, 311 Wis.2d 439, ¶22 (quoting Kalal, 271 Wis.2d 633, ¶51).

¶13 Ultimately, we bear in mind that "[s]tatutory interpretation involves the ascertainment of meaning, not a search for ambiguity." Kalal, 271 Wis.2d 633, ¶47 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Bruno v. Milwaukee Cnty., 2003 WI 28, ¶25, 260 Wis.2d 633, 660 N.W.2d 656). With these general principles in mind, we turn to our review of Wis.Stat. § 893.82.

C. Wis.Stat. § 893.82

¶14 Wisconsin Stat. §893.82 applies to claims brought against state employees. Section 893.82(2m) provides that "[n]o claimant may bring an action against a state officer, employee or agent unless the claimant complies strictly with the requirements of this section."

¶15 With regard to notice, Wis.Stat. § 893.82(3) provides, in relevant part, that:

[N]o civil action or civil proceeding may be brought against any state officer, employee or agent for or on account of any act growing out of or committed in the course of the discharge of the officer's, employee's or agent's duties . . . unless within 120 days of the event causing the injury, damage or death giving rise to the civil action or civil proceeding, the claimant in the action or proceeding serves upon the attorney general written notice of a claim stating the time, date, location and the circumstances of the event giving rise to the claim . . . .

¶16 With regard to service of notice of claim, Wis.Stat. § 893.82(5) requires that "[t]he notice under sub. (3) shall be sworn to by the claimant and shall be served upon the attorney general at his or her office in the capitol by certified mail. Notice shall be considered to be given upon mailing for the purpose of computing the time of giving notice."

¶17 Finally, Wis.Stat. § 893.82(1) provides that the purposes of the section are to:

(a) Provide the attorney general with adequate time to investigate claims which might result in judgments to be paid by the state.
(b) Provide the attorney general with an opportunity to effect a compromise without a civil action or civil proceeding.
(c)Place a limit on the amounts recoverable in civil actions or civil proceedings against any state ...

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