James et al v. City of Peoria (7.18.22)

Plaintiff’s son was killed while walking home from school. She faults the City of Peoria and sent a notice of claim offer to settle for millions. In the notice, she included a 30 day deadline stating: “This compromise to settle is valid for 30 days from the date of this letter.” Both the trial court and court of appeals held the notice is invalid because the notice provides a shorter deadline, and the notice of claim statute gives a governmental entity 60 days. Almost ten years ago the court of appeals reached the same result as the court of appeals in this case. Drew v. Prescott Unified School Dist., 233 Ariz. 522 (App. 2013). In Drew, the court of appeals held in the absence of a written denial by a public entity, the settlement offer in a notice of claim must remain open for 60 days. The court invalidated the notice of claim because it included a shorter deadline. Relying on Drew and contract law, the court of appeals held the notice of claim was a contract offer and the 30 day window was “neither meaningless nor ineffectual.” The supreme court reverses. The deadline is meaningless and ineffective and is a legal nullity. The City still has 60 days to respond and the shorter deadline is “of no legal consequence.”

As far as contract law, the supreme court tells us the City conceded at oral argument this is a matter of statutory interpretation and not contract law. When the court of appeals used contract law principles as the basis for its ruling, we sort of expect the supreme court to do something more than referencing a concession at oral argument. The statute provides under subpart (E): “A claim against a public entity. . . filed pursuant to this section is deemed denied sixty days after the filing of the claim unless the claimant is advised of the denial in writing before the expiration of the sixty days.” This language is a deadline for the public entity and not the claimant. It gives the public entity 60 days to respond. “Because James did not have the statutory or other legal authority to impose a shorter time for the City to respond, her attempt in the notice of claim to shorten the sixty-day deadline to thirty days had no effect. A legal nullity. Accordingly, James’ thirty-day deadline did not invalidate her otherwise valid notice of claim.”

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