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Lee v. State - 4/25/2008

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That the Mail Delivery Rule Applies to the Filing of Notices of Claim Under A.R.S. § 12-821.01.

Plaintiff James Lee’s car crashed through a highway guardrail.  Mr. Lee filed claims against the State alleging negligent design, construction, and maintenance of the roadway and guardrail.  The State moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming it never received a notice of claim as required by A.R.S. § 12-821.01.  Mr. Lee responded by submitting a “proof of service” showing that a notice of claim had been sent to the attorney general via regular United States mail more than a week before the statutory deadline.  The Superior court granted the motion to dismiss and the Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that Mr. Lee was required to show that the notice actually arrived at the attorney general’s office and could not rely on the common law rule that a letter properly mailed is presumed to reach its destination.

 In a 3-2 decision, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals opinion and reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that the “mail delivery rule” applies to the filing of notices of claim.  The majority explained that “proof of the fact of mailing will, absent any contrary evidence, establish that delivery occurred.”  If the addressee denies receipt, the presumption disappears and an issue of fact is created, but the fact of mailing retains evidentiary force.  The majority cited Andrews v. Blake, 205 Ariz. 236, 69 P.3d 7 (2003), to explain that even when a statute, rule, or private contract requires actual receipt by the addressee, the mail delivery rule applies.  The majority also explained that the Legislature could have specified the type of delivery required under the statute, but did not. 

The majority rejected the dissent’s argument that the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure preclude Mr. Lee from relying on proof mailing, noting that that Rules do not specify how filing must occur.  The majority also rejected the dissent’s argument that the requirements for filing notices of claim are the same as filings with a court, noting the distinction between a court clerk and parties to litigation.  Finally, the majority rejected the State’s policy argument that the purpose of the statute is best served if the burden to ensure actual receipt is placed on the claimant.

The dissent disagreed with the application of the mailbox rule to the filing of notices of claim in Arizona.  The dissent interpreted the filing requirement in A.R.S. § 12-821.01 to be analogous to the formal requirements of filing documents with a court.  The dissent also found the application of the mailbox rule antithetical to the purpose of the statute.  Finally, the dissent pointed to decisions from other jurisdictions at odds with the majority’s holding.   

Justice Bales authored the majority opinion.  Chief Justice McGregor authored the dissenting opinion, with Vice Chief Justice Berch concurring.

PRACTICE NOTE:  Citing Ariz. R. Civ. P. 12(b), the Court treated the State’s motion to dismiss as one for summary judgment because the parties presented material outside the pleadings.  The Court found that a reasonable factfinder could reject the State’s claim that it never received Mr. Lee’s notice of claim because Mr. Lee’s proof of mailing created a material issue of fact.  Therefore, the Court remanded the case to the trial court.

Posted On: 4/29/2008