Just like any other entity, a school district is susceptible to lawsuits. In the State of Arizona, a school district is considered a political subdivision, meaning that a school district is considered a “part” of the state for certain very specifically defined purposes. One such purpose for which a school district is considered a political subdivision is for the applicable rules when serving a school district with a Notice of Claim. It is very important that school districts understand the applicable rules for service of a Notice of Claim and that legal counsel be contacted immediately upon receipt of either a Notice of Claim.
The purpose of a Notice of Claim is to notify the state, or a political subdivision of the state like a school district, that an outside party is seeking to bring legal action against the state or the political subdivision and provide an opportunity to settle the matter. The statue which governs a Notice of Claim is found in Arizona Revised Statutes (“A.R.S.”) §12-821.01, Authorization Of Claim Against Public Entity Or Public Employee. A.R.S. §12-821.01(A) provides,
“Persons who have claims against a public entity or a public employee shall file claims with the person or persons authorized to accept service for the public entity or public employee as set forth in the Arizona rules of civil procedure within one hundred eighty days after the cause of action accrues. The claim shall contain facts sufficient to permit the public entity or public employee to understand the basis on which liability is claimed. The claim shall also contain a specific amount for which the claim can be settled and the facts supporting that amount. Any claim that is not filed within one hundred eighty days after the cause of action accrues is barred and no action may be maintained thereon.”
What this requires is that any person who has a claim against a school district must formally serve a letter which contains sufficient facts for the school district to understand the basis of the claim, a specific amount the person brining the claim is willing to settle the matter for, and facts supporting the amount sought in settlement. This letter is called a Notice of Claim, and if it is not properly served within One Hundred Eighty (180) days from when the “cause of action accrued” that person can be barred from bringing suit against the school district on that claim.
When a “cause of action” accrues is governed by A.R.S. §12-821.01(B) which states,
“For the purposes of this section, a cause of action accrues when the damaged party realizes he or she has been damaged and knows or reasonably should know the cause, source, act, event, instrumentality or condition that caused or contributed to the damage.”
The determination of when a person realizes that her or she has been damaged, or should have reasonably known the cause of that damage, is a factual determination that can be very difficult. As a failure to formally serve the Notice of Claim within One Hundred Eighty (180) days can result in that person being barred from suing the school district on that cause of action or claim, it is imperative that a school district contact its legal counsel immediately whenever it receives a Notice of Claim so that the date the “cause of action” accrued can be determined.
For example, if a person is injured by falling off of a school district bleacher during a school district sporting event that “cause of action” would arguably “accrue” on the date of the accident. Assuming that the “cause of action” accrued on the date of the accident, that person would then have One Hundred Eighty (180) days from the date of the accident to formerly serve the school district with a Notice of Claim. To be sufficient, that Notice of Claim must contain a description of the accident, the basis on which that person believes the accident is the fault of the school district, a specific amount that the person is willing to settle the claim for, and the facts supporting how that person calculated that amount. A failure to provide any of the information required by A.R.S. §12-821.01 or to properly formally serve the Notice of Claim could result in the claim against the school district being barred.
In order to formally serve a school district with a Notice of Claim, the person with the claim must adhere to the Rules of Civil Procedure for the Superior Courts of Arizona, specifically Rule 4.1(h)(4). Rule 4.1(h)(4) provides,
“Service upon a governmental entity subject to suit, and from which a waiver has not been obtained and filed, shall be effected by delivering a copy of the summons and of the pleading to the following individuals:
(4) For service upon any other governmental entity:
(A) The individual designated by the entity pursuant to statute to receive service of process; or
(B) If the entity has not pursuant to statute designated a person to receive service of process, then the chief executive officer(s), or, alternatively, the official secretary, clerk, or recording officer of the entity as established by law.”
For a school district (a “governmental entity subject to suit”), what this rule requires is that a Notice of Claim must be served upon,
- A person the school district governing board has voted to authorize to accept service on behalf of the school district; or
- Every member of the governing board; or
- The governing board’s official clerk or secretary (the designation of which also requires specific authorization from the school district governing board in the form of a vote).
Service on any other person, or a failure to serve all persons required, is not sufficient to satisfy Rule 4.1(h)(4), and if proper service is not completed within the One Hundred Eighty (180) days required by A.R.S. §12-821.01, then the claim against the school district may be barred for failure to provide a Notice of Claim.
Whenever a school district, or any of its officers or employees, receives a Notice of Claim that employee or officer should immediately refer the Notice of Claim to the school district superintendent. The school district superintendent should then immediately contact legal counsel for review to determine if the Notice of Claim contains the statements sufficient to satisfy A.R.S. §12-821.01 and if the Notice of Claim was properly served as required by Rules of Civil Procedure for the Superior Courts of Arizona, Rule 4.1(h)(4). No school district employee or officer, including governing board members, should accept service of a Notice of Claim unless the school district governing board has specifically authorized that school district employee, officer, or governing board member to do so.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding School Districts and Notice of Claim, or any other estate planning matters, please feel free to contact at 480.461.5300, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona and is a full service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.