What is the deal with process serving?
April 16, 2012 10:03 PM   Subscribe

Several years ago I was served papers for a civil suit by a process server whose demeanor I can't get out of my head. How does process serving really work? What is the cultural and legal context here?

I was home alone, after dark, and I heard the doorbell ring. I opened the door to find a cheerful, warm, approachable-looking young woman who looked completely not shady. She just said, "Are you mindsound? I have some papers for you." She held out some rolled-up documents. I said "Um," and took the papers. By the time I had unrolled them and worked out that they were related to a tort, she was walking away. So, yeah, process server.

I often wish I had had the presence of mind to stop her and ask her about her job. Her demeanor was so skillfully and subtly tailored to (a) get me to gently admit who I was and (b) get me to gently take possession of the paperwork that I feel like there must be some interesting backstory to process serving. What happens if I claim I'm not mindsound? What happens if I refuse to lay hands on the wad of papers? Why not just mail me the paperwork?

If it's relevant, this was a dumb car accident thing in Maryland, long since resolved.
posted by mindsound to Law & Government (12 answers total)
"Personal service is service of process directly to the (or a) party named on the summons, complaint or petition. In most lawsuits in the United States, personal service is required to prove service. Most states allow substituted service in almost all lawsuits unless you are serving a corporation, LLC, LLP, or other business entity; in those cases, personal service must be achieved by serving (in hand) the documents to the "Registered Agent" of a business entity. Some states (Florida) do not require that the documents actually be handed to the individual. In California and most other states, the documents must be visible to the person being served, e.g., not in a sealed envelope. If the individual refuses to accept service, flees, closes the door, etc., and the individual has been positively identified as the person to be served, documents may be "drop" served, and it is considered a valid service. Personal service of process has been the hallmark for initialing litigation for nearly 100 years, primarily because it guarantees actual notice to a defendant of a legal action against him or her. Personal service of process remains the most reliable and efficacious way to both ensure compliance with constitutionally imposed due process requirements of notice to a defendant and the opportunity to be heard."
posted by travelwithcats at 10:25 PM on April 16, 2012

I don't think you can really refuse service like that. To the extent that isn't just her personality, it could be more about avoiding conflict than effecting service.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:31 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you refuse service they will do something shady like try to get a neighbor to accept or somehow get a friend to give you paperwork. Basically they just have to get someone to sign for it. "Drop service" above. I'm not sure of how well it would hold up if challenged in court, and as noted above probably varies by state.
posted by thelastcamel at 10:45 PM on April 16, 2012

Well, the basic idea is to get the person to do the legally sufficient thing to accept the papers, and then get the hell out. Some people can get really upset when served (often the lawsuit is something emotional for them, such as a divorce, or loss of property). There are also people who will creatively and doggedly avoid service for one reason or another, so the "bombing run" approach becomes a way to get around that. Hit them at the grocery store, for example, or coming out of the public bathroom in their office building. There have been a number of examples I've seen in lawyer/cop shows and movies, such as urging a guy working on his car to roll out on his dolly, hands full of grease and/or tools, then drop the papers on his chest. In a lot of examples, whether true to life or not, deception becomes necessary. Again, the whole idea is to catch the person off-guard and get them served before they can object, evade, or escape.

As a landlord, I am responsible, as the suing party in an eviction, to pay for my own process service. Small claims actions don't always require full service, but as a landlord I need somebody who can be called into court -- if necessary -- to swear that the tenant received notice of the eviction lawsuit. (They are certainly capable of claiming they did not receive MULTIPLE notices taped to their door of overdue rent.) I can hire a private firm to do this, or I can hire the sheriff's department, who will use a deputy for service. This can be cheaper and also, obviously, significantly more intimidating.

I know a guy who does this, or at least used to until his back injury became a problem. He still does a few light-duty service calls, but can't deal with any that might be problems.

Apparently this is a mystery series with a process-server protagonist. A lot of process servers, I have noticed, are tied in with private investigators and collection agencies. I wouldn't be surprised if an insurer, whose litigation unit does not much else but file lawsuits day in and day out, would use the same server or at least agency over and over, with results winning repeat business.

What are you hoping to learn here?
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The law depends on where you live, but in general she needs to make sure she has the right person, and she ideally wants to get the papers into your hands. Hence the smiles, etc.

If she cannot get you to take the papers, there may be alternatives, including throwing them on the ground at your feet.

In many places, certified mail will work - IF you sign for the papers.

Putting the papers under your welcome mat, tacking them to the door, etc. will not work in most places because there needs to be proof that you did in fact get them.

Many people think that they have some sort of obligation to avoid being served, so if they suspect that it is happening - often because it's a sheriff's deputy knocking - they try to hide, won't answer, etc. It won't work. They'll figure out a way to get effective service. Most people would want to avoid service by a full legal notice being published in the local newspaper.
posted by yclipse at 4:36 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually once served papers for a friend who was an environmentalist lawyer and had to request something [testimony? film?] from a rather right-wing news station in town. They insulted me to my face about my appearance and class background and attempted to bully me into leaving. I had to tell them that I'd drop the papers on the floor before they'd take them from my hand. Now, that was what I'd been expecting as my lawyer friend had warned me, but it was still unpleasant.

I would say that if you don't mind being served the papers - which the news station really shouldn't have if they were honest, as we were only looking for news things they'd already reported, but they didn't want to help the "environmentalists" - it is very nice to be, as you were, pleasant to the paper-server.
posted by Frowner at 5:01 AM on April 17, 2012

I have done a little serving, ages ago. It was kind of fun! And nerve-wracking. (It was in the service of good, not the service of evil, at least.) I would just be like: "Hey, this is for you!" And SKEDADDLE, before they got scary.

I can also tell you that if you refuse service, that eventually comes up in later court actions, and it makes you look REALLY SHADY. It's almost impossible to explain: "Um yes, someone came to my door and I totally lied about my identity... Uh... I was scared?" There's just no good way out of that one.

Fedex also works for out-of-state serving in civil. Refusing a Fedex will also be brought up later in court.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:12 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Years ago, in the aftermath of a divorce, I got to know the process server on a first-name basis. In a divorce settlement, my ex was supposed to pay all of her old medical bills, but when she didn't they came after me. So I probably got served a half dozen times within a month.

The process server was a very personable and nice lady. She wasn't in a hurry to drop the papers and leave. In fact, on the first visit she took a few minutes to point out the phone numbers to call to dispute and even recommended that I file a dispute within 20 days regardless of the expected outcome, because that would delay the final due date of the debts.

On the second visit her demeanor was "Sorry, it's me again..." By the third visit we were chatting about the weather and our kids.

All that to say, I'm sure it's in their best interest to be polite, and if they sense hostility they can just high-tail out of there. It's also very likley that the quick departure of your server had as much to do with getting on to the next address quickly than trying to avoid confrontation.
posted by The Deej at 6:15 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

My favorite process service story is about an older woman living in an apartment building who was wise to the fact that she was being served and repeatedly refused to answer the door. Somehow the process server got access to the apartment across the alley and while the old woman was preparing salad in a large bowl the process server balled up the papers and tossed them across the alley, through an open window and into the salad bowl. Before the old woman could react the server yelled out that she had just been served in a lawsuit. This creative form of service was upheld in court as valid.
posted by caddis at 7:29 AM on April 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

When I was a law clerk (read gofer) for a firm that did mostly personal injury cases, I occasionally served papers. The firm had a private investigator they often used for service, but other times they'd use me (I was cheaper).

The attorney would file a document with the judge appointing me as a process server for a particular case. I'd go out and attempt service, and then I'd fill out and file an affidavit. As I recall, there were a few options on the affidavit for how the subpoena was served: to the person, posted to the door, certified mail.

I was never given any special instruction as to demeanor or tips for getting people to take the paper. I treated it like any other delivery. People either took the document or weren't home (or pretended not to be home), in which case, if the affidavit indicated I could do so, I posted their papers to their front door.

I'd second everything in The Deej's last paragraph.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2012

Thanks folks! I was trying to keep my question more specific than chatfilter but these answers are exactly what I was looking for. I guess I just wanted some insight into the human element of process serving.
posted by mindsound at 11:15 AM on April 17, 2012

I like these process-serving stories which came up in a similar question.
posted by mendel at 8:30 PM on April 18, 2012

« Older Am I a terrible team player or do I just need...   |   Ten percent off! We cashin' out! Insert other odd... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.