Case of the Week: Notice of Claim Was Improper for Failing to Include Enforceable Settlement Offer

In Yahweh v. City of Phoenix, 243 Ariz. 21, 400 P.3d 445 (Ct. App. 2017), review denied (Oct. 17, 2017),

, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a complaint against the City of Phoenix (“the City”) because the Notice of Claim (NOC) did not contain a sum-certain settlement offer. This case shows how an ambiguous statement can cause a procedural error that results in a case dismissal.

Yahweh worked for the Phoenix Police Department for many years, but the relationship deteriorated and his employment ended in 2014. The department issued a report which Yahweh contended included defamatory statements about him, and as a result his name was placed on the “Brady List” of officers implicated for professional misconduct.  (Prosecutors are required to disclose to criminal defendants police accused of professional misconduct, and a list of such officers is called a “Brady List.”)

Yahweh sent an NOC letter to the City in May of 2015, as required by Arizona law before suing a public entity. A.R.S § 12-821.01. The letter stated that Yahweh planned to seek damages against the City for 1.5 million dollars in projected earnings that were lost. The letter also stated that he would be suing for both defamation and violations of the Family Medical Leave Act.

The City moved to dismiss for failure to file a proper NOC, and the superior court granted the motion.

The Court of Appeals found that Yahweh’s NOC contained two mistakes that disqualified it from being considered an enforceable settlement offer. First, it did not include a specific amount for which the claim could be settled. While Yahweh stated the damages he would seek, he did not include a sum-certain amount for which he would agree to settle the claim.

Second, Yahweh did not state what amount of damages he would seek for the Family Medical Leave Act claim, as his alleged damages only referred to lost wages.

These mistakes violated the procedural requirements of the applicable statute and justified a dismissal of the case. The statutory purpose of sending an NOC letter is to show a willingness to settle a claim against a public entity for a specific amount. If the party does not clearly bind themselves to settlement for a certain amount, they have not met the requirements of the statute.

This case demonstrates the importance of procedure and how a failure to use precise language can result in the dismissal of a case. Before you file a complaint or contact a party to notify them of your claim, consult with an experienced litigation attorney to avoid making costly procedural errors.

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