In Townsend et al. v. Neenah Joint School District, 2013AP2839 (Recommended for Publication), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals clarified that while class actions involving unnamed parties cannot comply with Wisconsin's notice of claim statute, mass actions involving multiple but adequately identified parties may comply. Numerous teachers in the Neenah Joint School District served a notice of claim on the District for damages relating to the District’s decision to amend the teachers’ retirement plan.The notice of claim identified two specific complainants, Robert Townsend and Bruce Moriarty, and purported to asserttheir claims individuallyand asrepresentatives of the additional teachers who were identified on an attached spreadsheet. Plaintiffsstated that the notice was made as a class action under Wis. Stat. § 803.08 and asserted damages of more than $61 million. The notice was signed by an attorney representing the named claimants and the class. By letter addressed to Moriarty and Townsend, the District denied the claims in their entirety. Plaintiffs filed suit and the District moved for dismissal on various grounds, including that the notice of claim was defective. The District claimed only two plaintiffs were identified in the notice of claim (Townsend and Moriarty), and that the notice did not indicate these plaintiffs had authority to file the notice on behalf of the purported class members. Plaintiffs argued they had substantially complied with the notice requirements under Wis. Stat. § 893.80 as to all plaintiffs and the District had actual notice of all of the claims. The trial court dismissed the claims of all plaintiffs except for Townsend and Moriarty, finding nothing in the notice of claim stated the authority to assert claims on behalf of the otherindividuals.
The court of appeals reversed. The court examined the conflict between Wis. Stat. §§ 803.08 (class actions) and 893.80 (notice of claim). While the class action rules allow one individual to file a lawsuit on behalf of many claimants, this option does not apply to notices of claim. Instead, each individual who wishes to sue the government must identify himself/herself and present the claim to the government before filing suit. The court found the case law clear in that a notice of claim on behalf of an unnamed claimant can never comply with § 893.80. That does not mean, however,that a notice of claim may never state a claim on behalf of numerous individuals. The notice must meet the requirements of § 893.80. In evaluating the notice of claim, the District conceded that the analysis under § 893.80(1d)(a) involves a factual analysis that is not properly determined in a motion to dismiss. Focusing on § 893.80(1d)(b), the court found the plaintiffs substantially complied with the statutory requirements. Specifically, the notice contained the names and addresses of all of the plaintiffs and stated that each of the individuals identified was presenting a claim. The damages were itemized on the same list and there was no dispute that the service on the clerk was appropriate and that the District denied the claim. As a result, the court found the noticeadequate under§893.80(1d)(b). The court further found that there was no requirement under §893.80(1d)(b) that the notice state the claim is being madewith authority. Finally, despite indicating the § 893.80(1d)(a) analysis was factual and not properly before the court, it advised that the notice was signed by counsel who was representing all of the named claimants, whichindicated sufficient authority to assert the claims.
This caseinstructs that as long as the claimants are adequately identified and the other requirements of notice under § 893.80, so-called “mass” actions are allowed, even againstgovernmental entities.